By Kole Casule
SKOPJE (Reuters) - Macedonians voted peacefully in a parliamentary election Sunday amid accusations of fraud and intimidation that could threaten the country's efforts to join the European Union.
By the time voting ended at 7 p.m., there had been more than a dozen reports of minor voter intimidation and proxy voting, but no major incidents.
The state electoral commission's president, Boris Kondarko, said the turnout by 5 p.m. was 53.8 percent, higher than at the same point in previous elections.
"Until this moment we haven't received any serious reports about irregularities. In general the entire process is peaceful, free and fair," Kondarko told reporters.
In the run-up to the election, both the ruling conservative VMRO-DPMNE and the main opposition Social Democrats (SDSM)
accused each other of plotting election day violence. Western powers watched the campaign closely after warning Macedonia's leaders that the country's EU and NATO membership ambitions depended on the conduct of the elections.
Diplomats noted media reports that civil servants had been threatened with losing their jobs if they did not vote for the ruling party.
"There is too much at stake. If any of those predictions come true, this small country is risking its future. The EU will be further off than ever," a senior Western diplomat told Reuters.
Some 7,000 police officers patrolled polling stations, and police warned politicians there would be harsh penalties for any attempts at election violence or fraud.
One person was shot dead and several were wounded in an election-related incident in an ethnic Albanian area during the 2008 elections.
The VMRO-DPMNE, led by populist Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski, has accused the opposition of planning to allege fraud and to organize violent street protests if they lose. The opposition Social Democrats said the ruling party was seeking an alibi after intimidating voters during the campaign.
The VMRO-DPMNE led in the polls but was not expected to get enough votes to form a stable government.
The high turnout raised hopes among opposition parties that they had gained the support of many previously undecided voters.
Experts say the winner will have to seek a coalition partner, probably the party that wins the most votes among ethnic Albanians, who make up one third of the two million population.
The new government will face the task of reviving the economy and fighting unemployment and poverty, as well as speeding up the country's drive to join the European Union and NATO.
First preliminary results from party headquarters are expected late Sunday.
(Edited by Adam Tanner and Tim Pearce)