SKOPJE, Macedonia - Fragile Macedonia votes in an early election Sunday, with veteran ruler Nikola Gruevski fighting to keep his grip on power despite mass surveillance and corruption allegations that brought thousands onto the streets.
Called to end a two-year political crisis, the parliamentary polls are part of a European Union-brokered deal between the four main parties in the small Balkan country, which aspires to join the EU and NATO.
The turmoil erupted in February last year when Zoran Zaev, leader of the main opposition Social Democrats, began releasing tapes that appeared to show official wiretapping of 20,000 people, including politicians and journalists, as well as top-level corruption.
Gruevski, who became prime minister a decade ago, denied the allegations but stepped down in January this year to pave the way for early elections, following a wave of demonstrations both for and against his government.
The latest surveys show Gruevski's right-wing VMRO-DPMNE party topping the polls, but also a substantial number of undecided voters who could swing the result in the country of two million people.
The election comes as a special prosecution office is probing the wiretapping scandal and the surrounding corruption allegations.
"We don't know what will happen. The stakes are extremely high," said Florian Bieber, a Southeast Europe specialist at the University of Graz in Austria.
While 46-year-old Gruevski and his allies risk being "totally marginalized" if they lose, if they win they are "really going to crack down on any criticism," Bieber said.
'DOOM OR LIFE'
Sunday's vote has twice been postponed owing to opposition and international concerns of fraud in the former Yugoslav republic, which is one of Europe's poorest countries with an average net wage of around 360 euros a month.
"This is not an ordinary election campaign," Zaev, 42, told a crowd of thousands at a rally in the capital Skopje on Sunday.
"Citizens have a choice between doom or life."
Despite the recent turmoil, campaigning has been muted in comparison with previous elections and political billboards are overshadowed by Christmas decorations in central Skopje.
Arsim Zekolli, a political analyst and former diplomat, said the prospect of achieving change had been "clouded by the somehow halfhearted efforts by the opposition".
He said the opposition's participation in lengthy crisis talks with the ruling party had "tamed the atmosphere of revolt among the citizens".
The latest EU progress report on Macedonia said democracy and rule of law had been "constantly challenged" in particular by "state capture", meaning the considerable influence of private interests on decisions of the state.
Analysts however suggest Europe has pushed aside concerns because of Gruevski's role as a "gatekeeper" in the refugee crisis, in which hundreds of thousands of migrants have entered Macedonia from Greece on their way to western Europe.
Gruevski, who some believe may step aside from the role of PM even if he wins, has pledged to bring unemployment down from 24 percent, highlighting a rise in pensions, foreign investment and 160,000 new jobs created on his watch.
The former economist also accuses Zaev of risking the break-up of Macedonia by promising concessions to ethnic Albanians, who make up around a quarter of the population.
Fifteen years after a civil conflict between ethnic Albanian insurgents and Macedonian security forces, a handful of Albanian political groups are vying to become the junior partner in the country's new ruling coalition.
In Tetovo, an Albanian-majority town in northwest Macedonia, retired resident Azbi Adili said parties' attempts to inflame ethnic divisions to distract from their own shortcomings would not work.
"They have filled their pockets and some children don't have bread to eat," he said.