SKOPJE, Macedonia – Macedonia is holding an early general election after a nearly two-year political crisis that has roiled the government and threatens the Balkan nation's ambitions of joining NATO and the European Union.
Sunday's vote was called as part of a deal to address the crisis, which was sparked by opposition reports that the government was behind a large-scale illegal wiretapping operation that targeted 20,000 people, including politicians, judges, journalists, police and religious leaders.
Over several months, opposition leader Zoran Zaev released audio of dozens of wiretapped phone conversations that he said indicated former conservative Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski and his aides were involved in multimillion-dollar corruption deals, tampered with election results and brought spurious criminal prosecutions against opponents.
The conservatives vehemently rejected the charges, saying the wiretaps were conducted by unnamed foreign spies and accusing Zaev of plotting a coup.
Gruevski is under investigation by the country's Special Prosecution branch and has already been charged with enticement and carrying out a criminal act against public order.
The scandal led to months of street protests and has been the worst political crisis in Macedonia, which gained independence from the former Yugoslavia in 1991, since the country survived an ethnic conflict between government forces and members of the ethnic Albanian minority in 2001.
Gruevski, who had headed the government since 2006, stepped down earlier this year as part of a Western-brokered deal to defuse the crisis.
The agreement included holding early elections, which have been postponed twice so far. Signed by the heads of the country's four main political parties, the deal created an interim government that lead Macedonia to the early vote and established a special prosecution office to examine the wiretap scandal.
Nearly 1.8 million registered voters are eligible to choose 123 lawmakers for the unicameral parliament. In all, six political parties and five coalitions are running, while three parliamentary seats are reserved for the diaspora.
Gruevski, 46, heads a 25-party coalition titled "For a Better Macedonia" and is seeking a secure majority of 63 seats by promising 70,000 new jobs and decreasing the unemployment rate from 24 percent to 17 percent. He blames the opposition and others for creating the political crisis.
"Millions of euros have been invested in this scenario and the campaign of the opposition," Gruevski told supporters in the capital of Skopje. "They do not think of your well-being or that of the country."
Running against him is the 42-year-old Zaev, who heads a left-leaning coalition called "For Life in Macedonia." He has described the election as "a choice between doom and life" and accuses the conservative government of massive theft, social injustice and corruption.
"Gruevski understands what is good for himself only, not what is good for the people," he said.
Ethnic Albanians, meanwhile, comprise a quarter of Macedonia's 2 million people, and their vote has a considerable influence on the forming of a new government.
An ethnic Albanian political party that emerged from former guerrilla fighters, Democratic Union for Integrations, and the Democratic Party of Albanians are the main contenders among the ethnic minority.