SKOPJE, Macedonia – Macedonians voted peacefully in local elections Sunday, boosting hopes the country has turned a page and that the political and ethnic violence that has marred previous vote cycles isn't repeated.
The 2,976 polling stations closed at 7 p.m. local time (1700 GMT). State electoral commission head Subhi Jakupi said the turnout by 5 p.m. was 57.5 percent, 8 percent higher than at a similar stage in the previous local elections in 2009. More than 1.7 million people were eligible to cast votes.
"No serious incident has been registered," police spokesman Ivo Kotevski told The Associated Press. "The voting process in general went smoothly, fair and free, without violence."
The small Balkan country hopes that free, transparent and peaceful local elections will help it strengthen its case for European Union membership. More than 400 international observers were monitoring the Sunday election.
Ethnic Macedonians form the controlling majority in 63 of the country's municipalities and ethnic minority Albanians control 16. Ethnic Turks and Serbs each have the controlling majority in one community.
There is a history of conflict between the ethnic Macedonians, who make up more than 60 percent of the population, and ethnic Albanians, who comprise a quarter of the population in this nation of 2.1 million. The tensions almost resulted in civil war in 2001.
The civic association MOST, which deployed 3,500 domestic observers, pointed to numerous irregularities, such as dozens of cases described as "family voting" — with one family member openly guiding others as to which candidate to vote for.
Observers also mentioned several cases of voters seen taking photos of their ballots with cell phones — possibly to offer proof to people to whom they'd promised to vote a certain way.
The two primary coalitions putting up mayoral candidates cut across ethnic lines and are likely to win almost all of the municipal elections. The conservative coalition of 39 political parties is favored to win in most cities.
The leftist opposition of Social Democrats joined the elections at the last moment. It had boycotted the Parliament for more than two months but ended the boycott earlier this month after talks brokered by the European Parliament and the EU Commission. EU enlargement commissioner Stefan Fuele had said the opposition's participation in the local elections is crucial for Macedonia's EU candidacy.
Macedonia has been an EU candidate member since 2005, but has not yet obtained a date for the start of accession talks. This is partly due to Greece, which is opposed to Macedonia's name. The Greeks say the name implies a territorial claim to the northern Greek province of Macedonia. But the EU also is wary of admitting a state where ethnic conflict is still simmering.
Preliminary results are not expected before midnight Sunday. The electoral commission will announce the full results, plus the final turnout figure, Monday afternoon.