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Macedonia local elections to test new left-wing government

FILE - In this Friday, March 10, 2017 file photo, Prime Minister of Macedonia Zoran Zaevin delivers a speech in Skopje. Macedonia's left=wing government faces a strong test on Sunday, Oct. 15, 2017 in municipal elections of its ability to consolidate its strength at a local level, five months after it came to power amid an acute political crisis following a decade of conservative rule. (AP Photo/Boris Grdanoski, File)

FILE - In this Friday, March 10, 2017 file photo, Prime Minister of Macedonia Zoran Zaevin delivers a speech in Skopje. Macedonia's left=wing government faces a strong test on Sunday, Oct. 15, 2017 in municipal elections of its ability to consolidate its strength at a local level, five months after it came to power amid an acute political crisis following a decade of conservative rule. (AP Photo/Boris Grdanoski, File)

SKOPJE, Macedonia — Macedonia's left-wing government faces a strong test in this weekend's municipal elections, five months after it came to power during an acute political crisis following a decade of conservative rule.

The first round of the vote is scheduled for Sunday, with over 1.8 million registered voters choosing local officials in the capital, Skopje, and another 80 municipalities. The re-run is on Oct. 29.

Opinion polls show a slight advantage for the governing Social Democrats, particularly in the capital, Skopje, where the party's candidate mayor is 2.6 per cent ahead of the conservative incumbent.

The conservative VMRO-DPMNE main opposition party is seeking to defend its dominance on a local level. It won 56 of 81 municipalities in the last elections in 2013 against the Social Democrats' four.

Prime Minister Zoran Zaev has sought to get Macedonia to join NATO and the European Union, and to see through criminal investigations into conservative officials over a 2015 wiretapping scandal.

Zaev has urged voters to "free the country from the remnants of the VMRO-DPMNE criminal regime."

Zaev's ascent followed a protracted political crisis triggered by the wiretaps, for which he blamed the then-ruling conservatives. They denied wrongdoing and blamed unspecified foreign spies.

On the streets of Skopje, many voters seem disenchanted with politics.

"After every election, I'm poorer and more miserable. It is just a show for politicians and their greed for more power and money," 36-year-old dentistry technician Dijana Stojanovska told the Associated Press.

VMRO-DPMNE campaigning has focused on what it calls "national issues," claiming that the Social Democrats plan to change the country's name — over which Macedonia has a decades-long dispute with southern neighbour Greece — to join NATO and the EU.

VMRO-DPMNE also accuses Zaev's government of treason, for proposing to make Albanian Macedonia's second official language, and signing a friendship pact with neighbouring Bulgaria.

Albanians form a quarter of Macedonia's 2.1-million population, and ethnic tensions boiled over in 2001 when an ethnic Albanian uprising brought the country to the brink of civil war.

The local elections were delayed for five months due to a new crisis after VMRO DPMNE came first in parliamentary elections last year but was unable to secure a governing majority. Second-placed Zaev was eventually able to form a coalition with the ethnic Albanian DUI party.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe has over 300 observers to monitor the voting. Preliminary results are expected Monday.

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