SKOPJE, Macedonia (AP) — Macedonia's ruling conservatives hope to cement their dominance in elections Sunday for prime minister and president, banking on their economic program despite high unemployment and the failure to resolve a dispute with Greece that has kept the tiny country from joining NATO or achieving closer ties with the European Union. Here is a look at the elections:
WHY NOW? Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski called the general election a year early after falling out with coalition partners from the country's ethnic Albanian minority. Opinion polls give his VMRO-DPMNE party a strong lead over the Social Democrats, who have been out of office for eight years.
Sunday's vote coincides with a runoff for Macedonia's president, whose role is largely ceremonial. Conservative incumbent Gjorge Ivanov won nearly 52 percent in the first round two weeks ago, while opponent Stevo Pendarovski received 37.5 percent.
ALL ABOUT THE ECONOMY Landlocked Macedonia's 7.9 billion-euro ($11 billion) economy recovered from stagnation to grow 2.5 percent in 2013, helped by a government stimulus program. It is expected to expand 3 percent this year but unemployment remains high at 28.7 percent.
WHAT THE CONSERVATIVES WANT Gruevski, 43, has promised to win an outright victory for his party by getting at least 62 seats in the 123-member parliament, so economic reforms and job-creation programs won't be slowed down by disputes.
While popular, he remains a polarizing figure. Ethnic Albanians, who make up a quarter of Macedonia's 2.1 million people, mostly boycotted the first round of the presidential vote after Gruevski's coalition broke up. Gruevski's main political opponents have also accused him of autocratic leadership and media interference and were appalled at his decision to place giant nationalist monuments in the capital, Skopje.
THE OPPOSITION SOCIAL DEMOCRATS Social Democrat candidate Zoran Zaev is being sued by the prime minister after accusing him of receiving a 1.5 million-euro bribe from a Serbian businessman in 2004. "The government considers itself to be above the law and above the constitution," said Zaev. "Macedonia deserves a better future. There is a chance for this country to have an objective judiciary and an independent media."
DISPUTE WITH NEIGHBORING GREECE Both main parties back efforts to join NATO, but the Social Democrats favor a more diplomatic line in the dispute with Greece than the one taken by Gruevski's government. Athens has blocked Macedonia's accession, insisting that it alter its name to avoid a potential territorial claim against Greece's own northern region of Macedonia.