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Last Updated: Monday, 8 November, 2004, 02:25 GMT
Crucial poll fails in Macedonia
Macedonian voters
Macedonians were encouraged not to vote in the poll
A referendum designed to repeal laws giving minority Albanians in Macedonia greater autonomy has failed after a low turnout, said government officials.

Turnout was only 26.5%, well below the 50% minimum needed to make the vote valid, said independent monitors and the ruling Social Democratic party.

Both the government and foreign states had urged voters to boycott the poll.

Nationalists, who called for the referendum, conceded defeat but some alleged dirty tricks.

Macedonia's prospects of EU and Nato membership have been linked to the vote and the referendum took place under the threat of renewed ethnic violence in the country, says the BBC's Nick Hawton in Macedonia.

Defence Minister Vlado Buckovski hailed the result saying Macedonians had sent a "powerful message" to the EU and Nato about their future hopes for the country.

Emira Mehmeti of the Albanian party in government said: "The people have demonstrated they are willing to live in a multi-ethnic state which promotes European values and concepts".

Their words were echoed by the UK's Europe Minister, Denis MacShane.

"I congratulate the wise decision to maintain the country's ambitions for a future in Europe," he said.

Polling stations 'shut'

Nationalists conceded defeat shortly after polls closed on Sunday evening.

But nationalist leader Nikola Gruevski said the government should still rethink the law as 500,000 of 1.7 million eligible voters had backed the vote.

That was a big enough number for the ruling party to "hear the voice of the people and change the law" he said.

Some nationalists said they would not accept the vote, and alleged massive fraud.

"In 20% of the country, polling stations were not opened at all," said Todor Petrov of the World Macedonian Congress.

"We will demand that the Supreme Court declares it irregular," he added.

The controversial issue at the heart of the referendum was a redrawing of local government boundaries that will give Albanians greater administrative control over areas in which they predominate.

The changes, passed by the parliament in August, reduce to 84 the number of municipalities - 16 would be largely under the control of ethnic Albanians, constituting about a quarter of the population.

More importantly, in some areas including Skopje, the changes would enable Albanian to become the second official language.

Albanians say it is long overdue recognition of their rights.

But Macedonian nationalists say it is a step too far and amounts to a territorial division of the country along ethnic lines.

Background to the poll's failure

Poll fears divide Macedonians
07 Nov 04 |  Europe
Macedonia cabinet survives vote
19 Sep 04 |  Europe

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