SKOPJE, Macedonia (AP) — Polls opened Sunday in Macedonia for a general election called two years early as part of a Western-brokered agreement to end a paralyzing political crisis.
The crisis began after the opposition accused the conservative government of an illegal wiretapping operation that targeted 20,000 people, including politicians, judges, journalists, police and religious leaders.
Former conservative Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski, who had headed the government since 2006, is seeking a fresh mandate. His VMRO-DPMNE party leads a 25-party coalition called “For a Better Macedonia.”
His main opponent is Zoran Zaev, who heads a left-leaning coalition called “For Life in Macedonia.”
While Gruevski has accused Zaev of plotting a coup and creating the political crisis, Zaev has accused Gruevski of massive theft, social injustice and corruption.
Nearly 1.8 million registered voters are eligible to choose 123 lawmakers for the single-chamber parliament. Three seats are reserved for Macedonians living abroad.
Over several months, Zaev released audio of dozens of wiretapped phone conversations that he said indicated 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.
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 a conflict with its ethnic Albanian minority in 2001.