SKOPJE Veteran leader Nikola Gruevski's nationalist VMRO-DPMNE won 51 out of 120 seats in Macedonia's parliament in a snap poll on Sunday that is expected to end a two-year long crisis that brought his government down.
The nationalists are now in a good position to form a government with their old partner, the Albanian DUI despite their losses. Overall, Albanian ethnic minority parties lost out to the social democrats, suggesting an easing of ethnic strains.
Preliminary results issued by the State Election Commission showed opposition Social Democrats had won 49 seats in the election, brought about by Gruevski's resignation over a wiretapping scandal.
Albanian voters in Macedonia shifted towards the Social Democrats in significant numbers for the first time since a 2001 interethnic conflict.
The provisional result suggested ethnic factors were playing a lesser role in politics, reducing the dangers of nationalist frictions that have beset Macedonia in the past.
Albanians make up about a third of the 2.1 million population of the landlocked former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia, and have traditionally voted for ethnic Albanian parties, one of whom then becomes the junior party in a coalition government.
This time, the Albanian DUI party, which formed the last coalition government with Gruevski won 10 seats in parliament - a half of what it had in last election. A new, anti-establishment Albanian party, Besa, picked up 5 seats, while the Democratic Party of Albanians got 2 seats, while Alliance for Albanians recorded 3 seats.
"With anger, I say the Albanians lost their mandate," DUI leader Ali Ahmeti said after the vote on Sunday.
Sunday's snap election was called after Gruevski stepped down and handed over to a caretaker government in January to end a national crisis caused by opposition allegations that he and his counter-intelligence chief had wiretapped the phones of more than 20,000 people.
Zoran Zaev released recordings that appeared to show abuses of power by senior government figures. Gruevski denied wrongdoing.
Both Gruevski and Zaev proclaimed victory on Sunday evening and their supporters celebrated on the streets of Skopje.
International observers called on Monday for national unity to give Macedonia a chance of resuming stalled talks to join the European Union and put years of conflict behind it.
"The country is at a new crossroads, which opens a path towards normality in political life," said Stefan Schennach, head of the delegation from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.
"Now the entire country must replace ethnic separation with nation-building co-operation."
Victories of the Social Democrats in towns such as Aracinovo and Brest clearly show that Albanians voted for it, said Artan Sadiku of Skopje's Institute of Social Sciences and Humanities.
"It is clearly a significant shift and a departure from an ethnically determined vote," he told Reuters, adding that political parties might no longer be able to use nationalism to generate further instability.
Ethnic tensions over regional autonomy, political representation and Albanian-language schooling brought Macedonia to the brink of war in 2001. It was ended by the so-called Ohrid Accord, brokered by NATO and the European Union, which gave Albanians greater rights.
Parties will have 20 days to constitute the parliament, once the state election commission comes out with results.
(Editing by Georgina Prodhan and Ralph Boulton)