updated 4/14/2004 11:05:22 PM ET 2004-04-15T03:05:22

Macedonia’s prime minister and a little-known rival won the most votes in presidential elections Wednesday, setting up a runoff contest in two weeks.

The winner of the runoff will replace the late President Boris Trajkovski, who died in a plane crash before he could complete his mission of moving the country from ethnic bloodshed to reconciliation.

With 80 percent of the vote counted, the State Election Commission said the top two finishers were Prime Minister Branko Crvenkovski, with about 43 percent or about 332,000 votes, and Sasko Kedev of the opposition VMRO party, with 34.5 percent or about 267,000 votes. They defeated ethnic Albanian candidates Gezim Ostreni at 14 percent and Zudi Xhelili at 8 percent.

A winning candidate needed more than 50 percent of the vote to avoid a runoff. Final official results weren’t expected before Thursday afternoon.

The partial tally mirrored a complete unofficial count issued earlier by the political parties, whose counting system has proved reliable. In that count, Crvenkovski had 47 percent to 38 percent for Kedev with the two others trailing far behind.

All the candidates embraced Trajkovski’s commitment to unity and steered clear of exploiting the troubles between the ethnic Albanian minority and the Macedonian majority that led to six months of fighting in 2001.

All four presidential hopefuls had pledged to lead the troubled country into the European Union and NATO — even as they promised work for hundreds of thousands of the unemployed. Candidates appealed for a big turnout, but voters were slow to respond. By day’s end only about 50 percent of those eligible to vote had cast ballots. But many spoke warily of hopes for a future without war.

“I saw what happened in these last few years,” said Arbana Pustina-Fetahu, 36, an ethnic Albanian teacher from the town of Debar. “You can’t achieve anything with violence.”

The uneventful race differed from the heated campaigns of years past in part because it was so short — only 12 days were allowed for candidates to campaign because of rules put into effect to replace Trajkovski quickly. Given the shock of Trajkovski’s death, lawmakers feared that a bitter and extensive campaign would be bad for the country and could backfire to cost them votes.

Trajkovski’s death in February while traveling to an international conference reminded people of his fragile balancing act during the conflict and the years that followed. Though the post is largely ceremonial, Trajkovski used his job as commander in chief of the military to shut out hard-liners within his party who demanded a crackdown on ethnic Albanians seeking more rights in 2001.

That conflict ended with dozens of deaths — but far fewer than those from the war in neighboring Kosovo and other Balkan conflicts. Trajkovski, who studied in the United States, then helped make the peace plan stick with strong support from NATO and the European Union.

Under pressure to choose a leader who could measure up, Macedonia’s ruling party, the Social Democrats, put forward its most prominent member — Crvenkovski.

A 41-year-old electrical engineer, Crvenkovski ran a campaign depicting himself as a statesman, and pledging to bring peace and security to this Balkan country of 2 million.

His rival, the largely unknown Kedev, a 41-year-old Macedonian, plastered posters throughout the country and positioned himself as the “new face of Macedonia.”

At a polling station in a school in the capital’s mixed neighborhood of Cair, Macedonians and ethnic Albanians quickly cast ballots and expressed hope that the country would become more stable — and ensure their prosperity.

“We’ve learned to live to together,” said Veljko Metodija, a 62 year-old Macedonian retiree.

Macedonia’s 1.7 million voters were not expected to choose a president in the first round because the winner must receive over 50 percent of the vote. A runoff between the top two candidates would be held within two weeks.

The vote was slightly marred by reports of irregularities in one neighborhood in the capital, but state election authorities said it was largely fraud free.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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