SKOPJE, Macedonia – Sunday's early parliamentary election in Macedonia, held in the shadow of a massive wiretapping scandal, pits the governing conservatives against the left-wing main opposition. Two smaller players, both representing the country's ethnic Albanian minority, might prove key for either main party in forming a government. Here's a profile of the four main party leaders.
A conservative with populist and nationalist leanings, Gruevski, 46, heads the VMRO-DPMNE party and has governed Macedonia for the past decade. He stepped down as prime minister in January, under a Western-brokered deal to defuse one of the worst political crises since Macedonia gained independence from former Yugoslavia in 1991. Opposition parties accuse Gruevski of orchestrating an illegal wiretapping operation that targeted 20,000 people, including judges, politicians, police, journalists and religious leaders. Gruevski, the leader of VMRO-DPMNE since 2003, denies any wrongdoing and claims foreign spies were behind the wiretaps. His party is leading in opinion polls.
The 42-year-old mayor of Strumica, a town of about 50,000 near the borders with Greece and Bulgaria, has led the Social-Democratic Alliance for Macedonia, or SDSM, since 2013. He has described the forthcoming election as "a choice between doom and life," and accuses the conservative government of fostering corruption and social injustice. Last year, Zaev released copies of dozens of illegally tapped phone calls that he said showed involvement by Gruevski and his top aides in multimillion-dollar corruption deals, tampering with election results and bringing spurious criminal prosecutions against opponents.
Ahmeti is a former military commander of an ethnic Albanian insurgent force that fought government troops for six months in 2001, before a peace deal granted more rights to the minority that forms about a quarter of Macedonia's 2.1 million residents. Ahmeti's party, the center-left Democratic Union for Integrations, emerged from the guerrilla campaign and has governed as a junior coalition partner with Gruevski's conservatives since 2008. Polls suggest that DUI leading against the other main party representing the ethnic Albanian minority.
A strong advocate of more rights for the ethnic Albanian minority, Thaci has held senior positions in the Democratic Party of Albanians, or DPA, for almost two decades. The center-right party served as a junior coalition partner for a VMRO-DPMNE government in 2006-2008.