Central Election Commission spokesman Erton Sinani said on Tuesday vote counters in 15 of 100 counting centres had abandoned their task with ballot boxes still to be opened.

 

"They were following party orders from both sides," he told Reuters. "Unless they cooperate, this might drag on until August."

 

"Both sides" means the ruling Socialist Party of Prime Minister Fatos Nano and the opposition Democratic Party of ex-president Sali Berisha, who have dominated Albania since the collapse of its hardline communist regime in 1990.

 

The bitter rivals' election jousts have been marred by vote-rigging, clashes, boycotts and legal challenges.

 

Each of 100 central tallying centres is staffed by seven counters from the main parties and watched by their heavies.

 

Analysts say they may be told to walk off if the count was not going their way to buy time for tactical manoeuvring with potential coalition allies.

 

President Alfred Moisiu, in a statement, called on the vote-counters to "carry out their work responsibly" and complete the tally of an estimated 1.6 million ballot papers.


Zero tolerance

 

"We cannot tolerate any attempt to create tension or obstacles affecting the political climate, the continuation of the vote count and the declaration of results," he said.

 

"They should get on with it, stop delaying the count because of arguments or disagreement," said Urdur Gunnarsdottir of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

 

"It's essential that this does not drag on. The longer it does, the more problematic it is."

 

"It's essential that this does not drag on. The longer it does, the more problematic it is"

Urdur Gunnarsdottir, Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)

With Albanian TV stations in their third day of wall-to-wall election coverage, a picture emerged of Berisha on his way back after eight years in opposition.

Meanwhile, AFP reported that the Democratic Party of former Albanian president Sali Berisha is said to be well ahead of the governing Socialists as vote counting continues from the country's general election at the weekend, the election commission said on Tuesday.

 

It said the party has won 53 of the 100 seats in the 140-member parliament, while the Socialist Party of Prime Minister Fatos Nano has 35.

Albanians killed

On Monday two Albanians have been shot and killed during celebrations of parliamentary elections in the Balkan country that were criticised by election monitors as only partially meeting international standards.

One man was killed as he celebrated in front of the Democratic Party office in Lushnje, 80km south of the capital, Tirana, police spokeswoman Edlira Teferici said.

The man allegedly involved in the first killing was later shot dead by other people, she said, adding the circumstances of the incident were unclear.

An election official was shot dead on Sunday during general election voting in Tirana.

The elections have been seen as a crucial test of the Balkan country's aspirations of Nato membership and closer ties with the European Union.

Vote process questioned

Former president Sali Berisha 
held an early lead late on Monday 

"Parliamentary elections in Albania on 3 July complied only partially with international commitments and standards for democratic elections," a preliminary report from the Organisation of Security and Cooperation in Europe said.

"The election day was generally peaceful but a few violent incidents, one fatal, cast a shadow over the process," the report said. The report was issued before Monday evening's deaths.

Early returns showed opposition leader Sali Berisha, of the Democratic Party, leading incumbent Socialist Prime Minister Fatos Nano, but conclusive results are expected on Tuesday.

Irregularities

While citing limited improvements over previous polls, the OSCE said Sunday's elections were marred by organisational problems and allegations of irregularities.

"For 10 years the Council of Europe has monitored this country and it has not yet brought the results that we would like to see," said Morton Ostergaard, a Council of Europe official. He said authorities must continue reforms to establish a credible voters list.

Prime Minister Fatos Nano leads
the Socialist Party

Ostergaard also said political forces exploited the system's weaknesses through tactical voting.

Polls on Sunday remained open for more than three hours past the scheduled closing time in many areas, and an election official was shot dead in Tirana.

Albanians, sealed off from the world for decades by harsh Communist rule, voted for a 140-seat parliament, with 100 deputies elected directly and 40 allocated through party lists.

Preliminary results from 248 of Albania's 4763 polling stations, or about 5%, indicated a lead for Berisha, who was Albania's president from 1992 to 1997.

The Central Election Commission said the Democratic Party and allied coalition groups were ahead with about 45%, while Prime Minister Nano's Socialist Party and allies trailed with about 30%.

Allegations

Former prime minister Ilir Meta's Socialist Movement for Integration followed with about 8%. Meta could play a key role if a coalition government is formed.

Observers say the polls were
less than perfect

Berisha said the preliminary results showed that "the victory is being consolidated".

The 60-year-old cardiologist was forced to resign in 1997 after the collapse of investment schemes that plunged the country into anarchy.

The Socialists, seeking a third term, accused the Democrats of boycotting the counting process by allowing its officials to leave committees where ballots are being tallied.

"Albanians' voice will not be suffocated. Their votes will be counted," Nano said.

The Democrats dismissed the allegation.