By Kole Casule
SKOPJE (Reuters) - Macedonians voted in a snap parliamentary election on Sunday likely to hand conservative Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski a third term, after his solid economic record overshadowed opposition complaints that his rule has been authoritarian.
Gruevski's VMRO-DPNE party could score a double victory as the vote coincided with a presidential runoff in which its candidate, the incumbent Gjorge Ivanov, looked set to beat a Social Democrat rival and win the largely ceremonial post.
"VMRO-DPMNE and DUI are set to win again. People believe in them," Marina Trajanova, 29, an accountant, said after casting her ballot in the capital Skopje.
Gruevski, 43, has ruled the landlocked ex-Yugoslav republic of 2 million people since 2006 in coalition with the DUI party of former ethnic Albanian guerrillas.
During that time, Skopje's bid to join the European Union and NATO has been frozen because of a row with neighboring EU member Greece over Macedonia's name, which Athens wants changed because it is also the name of a northern Greek province.
Most Skopje residents interviewed by Reuters said the opposition had little chance to unseat Gruevski, but only a few believed their life would improve after the vote.
"It hasn't been easy but it's not (the government's) fault, the whole world has had economic troubles. I think things will be going in the right direction now," said Goran Spirovski, 34, a state railways worker.
BID TO JOIN EU AND NATO BLOCKED
Macedonia remains one of Europe's poorest countries with the unemployment rate above 28 percent, but Gruevski's government has achieved solid economic growth, low public debt and a rise in foreign investment, unlike most neighbors in the Balkans.
Voting ends at 7 p.m. (1700 GMT) and first unofficial results are expected around midnight. Police and the state electoral commission reported no violence or serious irregularities by 4 p.m.
Opposition parties have accused Gruevski of creeping authoritarianism and corruption, while foreign diplomats in Skopje say there are concerns about media freedom and political pressure on journalists.
He says any complaints of authoritarianism come from opposition parties that lack a concrete political program to unseat him. He has dismissed as false the corruption charges and has threatened lawsuits against an opposition leader.
Diplomats have praised Gruevski for keeping in check tensions between Macedonia's Slav majority and its large ethnic Albanian minority, whose rebellion in 2001 to secure more political rights brought the country to the brink of civil war.
"I expect these elections to be a guidepost for Macedonia's Euro-Atlantic future and improve inter-ethnic relations," said ethnic Albanian politician and DUI leader Ali Ahmeti.
After Western diplomacy stopped the fighting, Macedonia was promised NATO and EU integration like the rest of the former Yugoslavia.
It became a formal candidate for EU membership in 2005 but has made no progress since then as Greece blocked its accession to NATO and the start of EU talks until a solution is found to the name dispute.
Years of U.N.-mediated talks have yielded no results and most ordinary Macedonians blame the impasse on Athens, which has in turn blamed Skopje for showing no willingness to compromise.
The parliamentary election was called a year ahead of schedule, after the coalition partners failed to agree on a consensus candidate for president.
(Additional reporting by Fatos Bytyci in Tetovo; Writing by Zoran Radosavljevic; Editing by Andrew Roche)