SKOPJE (Reuters) - Macedonians head to the polls on Sunday in early parliamentary elections triggered by a political crisis over alleged government corruption that resulted in veteran nationalist leader Nikola Gruevski's stepping down in January.
Gruevski, leader of the center-right VMRO-DPMNE party - which has governed the former Yugoslav republic as the major party in various coalitions for the best part of a decade - is seeking re-election as prime minister.
A caretaker government is currently in place, under the terms of an EU-brokered deal to end the crisis.
The main challenger is the Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM), whose leader, Zoran Zaev, sparked the latest crisis by accusing the government of wiretapping the phone conversations of tens of thousands of citizens and released recordings appearing to implicate the government in corruption.
Four parties representing the ethnic Albanian community, which accounts for around a third of the population of 2.1 million, are also running for election. Traditionally, an Albanian party joins a coalition government as junior partner.
The vote is seen as a test of the European Union's strategy of coaxing neighboring countries to make painful reforms in exchange for aid.
The European Union has long criticized Gruevski's record on safeguarding democracy and the rule of law but its bargaining power is weak and it needs the cooperation of Macedonia, which is in a key position on the so-called Balkan route of migrants into the bloc, to contain its migrant crisis.
The vote will be monitored by 667 international observers and 7,585 domestic observers. Final campaign rallies on Friday were peaceful.
Opinion polls predict widely varying results, depending partly on their sponsors, but all recent polls put the VMRO-DPMNE in the lead. Up to a third of voters are undecided.
The polls open at 0600 GMT and close at 1800 GMT. Preliminary declarations by the parties are expected at around midnight, with first indications from the electoral committee on Monday and a final result not before Tuesday.
(Reporting by Kole Casule, editing by David Evans)