SKOPJE, Macedonia (AP) – Macedonia’s national referendum Sunday on abolishing local autonomy for the country’s ethnic Albanian minority failed, authorities said.

The State Election Commission said turnout was only 26.2 percent – well below the 50 percent needed. Although a large majority of the ballots cast were in favor of revoking Albanian autonomy, the initiative collapsed because of the low turnout, said Zoran Tanevski of the Election Commission.

Defense Minister Vlado Buckovski hailed the outcome as a victory for the government that earlier this year pushed through a law redrawing municipal districts to make ethnic Albanians a dominant force in 16 out of 84 districts. The law was approved by parliament in August as part of a Western-brokered peace deal signed by the government and Albanian rebels three years ago.

But the law infuriated Macedonian hard-liners, who forced the referendum to try and block the reform. They protested that the change gave the ethnic Albanians control over western Macedonia and could lead to the country’s breakup.

Shortly after the polls closed at 7 p.m., the nationalists conceded defeat.

Out of 1.7 million eligible voters, “about 500,000 people cast their ballots,” said Nikola Gruevski, a nationalist leader who pushed for the referendum. In conceding, he appealed to the ruling parties to re-examine the autonomy law.

The pro-Western government, which also includes ethnic Albanian politicians, has said that abandoning the reform would mean reneging on the 2001 peace agreement signed with ethnic Albanian rebels after months of armed clashes.

Under the deal, the insurgents agreed to disarm in exchange for broader rights for their community – a quarter of Macedonia’s 2 million people.

International officials in Macedonia have warned that revoking the law could destabilize the country and undermine Macedonia’s chances of joining the European Union and NATO.

“Macedonia has sent today a powerful message to the European union and NATO that the people of this country know the path for the future of their country,” Buckovski said.

Few votes were cast in ethnic Albanian areas of Macedonia.

AP-ES-11-07-04 2029EST

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