updated 3/22/2009 4:03:16 PM ET 2009-03-22T20:03:16

Macedonians voted Sunday in presidential and local elections seen as crucial to the country's NATO and European Union aspirations, with no signs of the violence that derailed last year's parliamentary ballot.

The June 2008 parliamentary election was marred by fraud and gunfights between supporters of rival ethnic Albanian parties that left one person dead and several injured. The violence was the worst since 2001, when minority ethnic Albanians fought a six-month insurgency, saying they were seeking more rights.

To avoid a repetition, security was tight Sunday, with hundreds of police deployed across the country. Authorities stressed they would tolerate no violence, and nearly 7,000 Macedonian and about 500 foreign election observers were monitoring the vote.

"So far so good," U.S. Ambassador Philip Reeker told media mid-afternoon, giving his first assessment on election process.

No complaints of irregularities
State electoral commission head Aleksandar Novakovski said turnout at 1 p.m. stood at 26.24 percent, and there had been no official complaints of irregularities.

"I'm generally satisfied with the election process until now. Everything is going well," he said.

But heavy snowfall prevented 103 of the country's nearly 3,000 polling stations from opening. Voting in those stations would be repeated in two weeks' time, electoral commission spokesman Zoran Tanevski told the AP. The affected polling stations had 12,000 voters registered — less than 1 percent of the total 1.8 million eligible voters.

Seven candidates are vying for the five-year presidency of Macedonia, one of Europe's poorest countries where unemployment runs at about 35 percent. Outgoing President Branko Crvenkovski is not seeking a second term.

Although the presidency is largely ceremonial, the president can be influential in areas such as foreign policy.

A first-round victory requires an absolute majority, but the vote is expected to go to a runoff on April 5. Forty percent of eligible voters must vote for the runoff to be valid.

Front-runner Gjorgje Ivanov, 49, of the governing VMRO-DPMNE, holds a roughly 10-point lead in opinion polls on his closest rival, Ljubomir Frckoski, 51, who is backed by the Social Democratic SDSM.

"I expect these elections to be free and fair. It is essential for Macedonia's Euro-Atlantic integration," Ivanov said casting his ballot.

Pre-election campaign relatively peaceful
Ethnic Albanian Imer Selmani has been third in opinion polls, followed by former interior minister Ljube Boskoski, running as an independent. Boskoski was acquitted by the U.N. war crimes tribunal in The Hague in July 2008 and returned home to a hero's welcome.

The pre-election campaign was relatively peaceful, despite allegations of voter intimidation. It focused mainly on an acrimonious, long-running dispute with neighboring Greece over Macedonia's name, which has prevented Macedonia from joining NATO.

One voter, 35-year-old teacher Aneta Gievska, said she expects the next president to find a solution to the name issue, and ensure visa-free travel to the EU.

But some voiced doubts that much would change.

"Everything will remain the same," said electrician Branko Aleksovski, 48. "There is no sign of a better economy. ... I'm only voting to fulfill my civic duty."

The local election vote involves 365 candidates running for 85 mayoral posts.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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