But lingering anger over the scandal and a large number of undecided voters make for one of the hardest elections to predict since Macedonia gained independence from Yugoslavia in 1991.
Central to the contest is former Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski's bid to regain the top post less than a year after he stepped down in the wake of major antigovernment protests over the recordings, which critics said implicated him and aides in corrupt deals, vote rigging, and trumped-up criminal prosecutions against opponents.
The election has been postponed twice, in April and June. It pits Gruevski’s VMRO-DPMNE party against the opposition Social Democrats (SDSM), with several smaller parties and coalitions -- some representing the large ethnic Albanian minority -- also on ballots.
Macedonia was plunged into political crisis in February 2015, when the SDSM began releasing a series of secretly recorded tapes it claims show that parts of the leadership of the VMRO-DPMNE-led government were responsible for the illegal surveillance of some 20,000 people including journalists, politicians from both the ruling and opposition parties, activists, and religious leaders.
The incendiary recordings, released on a weekly basis by SDSM leader Zoran Zaev, sparked antigovernment protests attended by tens of thousands of people. Zaev claims that the recordings were provided by a whistle-blower in the Interior Ministry.
Gruevski has denied the illegal surveillance and corruption accusations, and sought to turn the tables by claiming that the opposition cooperated with unnamed foreign intelligence service to push him from power. He did not provide evidence.
He stepped down in January 2016 as part of an EU-brokered deal that put an interim government in place, but remains head of the VMRO-DPMNE and seeks to return to power as prime minister -- the top office in the country of 2.1 million.
The snap poll is the result of the agreement, which was signed by the heads of the four main political parties in July 2015.
Elections had been set for April but were postponed twice amid opposition calls for measures to ensure they are free and fair -- such as cleaning up the electoral rolls, which included thousands of deceased people and fictive voters.
Gruevski, 46, is hoping to secure a majority of 63 seats for his coalition by promising to create 70,000 new jobs and lower the unemployment rate from 24 percent to 17 percent.
Led by Zaev, 42, the opposition has pledged to fight corruption, improve the country’s democratic standards, and support the work of the EU-backed Special Public Prosecution Office (SJO), which is investigating the allegations that emerged from the wiretapping scandal and has charged Gruevski and 13 other people with "enticement and carrying out a criminal act against public order."
Zaev has been vigorously pursuing the votes of ethnic Albanians, who make up a quarter of the population and in the past have mainly supported the Albanian Democratic Union for Integration (BDI), which is VMRO-DPMNE’s main coalition partner, and the Democratic Party of Albanians. The SDSM candidate list includes several prominent ethnic Albanian public figures.
Some 1.8 million registered voters will cast ballots to fill the 123 seats in the unicameral parliament in the December 11 elections. Each party puts forward a list of 20 candidates in each of the country’s six electoral districts, and seats are awarded on a proportional basis.
A poll commissioned by independent TV station Telma and published on December 5 showed VMRO-DPMNE with 23.3 percent of the projected vote and SDSM with 19.4 percent -- a margin far smaller than in the last elections, in 2011, when the VMRO-DPNME bested the SDSM by 11 percentage points.
But with 15.1 percent undecided and 17.6 percent refusing to tell the pollster which party they would vote for, this is the least predictable vote held in Macedonia.
The country officially became an EU candidate in 2005, but critics have accused Gruevski of damaging the campaign by dragging his feet on reforms and weakening the country’s democratic institutions.
Russia voiced support for Gruevski’s conservative government during the height of the massive antigovernment protests dubbed the Colorful Revolution -- a reference to the paintball street protests and a play on the "colored revolutions" that have brought down relatively Moscow-friendly governments in Ukraine, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan in the past 15 years.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov accused the West of stirring up a "colored revolution" in Macedonia and said it was "dangerous" to undermine Gruevski’s government.
Western diplomats say hurdles to EU membership include shortcomings in judicial independence and the rule of law as well as an escalating crackdown on media freedom in recent years. But the main obstacle is Macedonia's continuing name dispute with EU-member Greece, which has a region with the same name.
The crisis in Macedonia is the worst since some 200 people were killed in a seven-month conflict between the ethnic Albanian Kosovo Liberation Army (UCK) and Macedonian armed forces.
The fighting ended with the August 2001 signing of the Ohrid Framework Agreement, which gave ethnic Albanians more rights and reintegrated the former rebels into the government. Many of them are now in VMRO-DPMNE’s junior coalition partner, the BDI.