Polls have opened in Albania in elections that could determine whether one of Europe’s poorest countries will have a chance of joining the European Union.
Sunday’s elections are being held against a backdrop of accusations of vote-buying and voter roll irregularities, sparking fears of a repeat of the 2009 polls which ended in a political crisis.
Police said on Sunday one person was killed and another injured in exchange of fire near a polling station, according to the Associated Press news agency.
The election will see the country’s 3.2 million voters choosing legislators for the 140-seat assembly.
A day before the vote, the Central Electoral Commission remained paralysed, with no progress made in a bid to replace three of the commission’s seven members.
The members resigned in April over a dispute between conservative Prime Minister Sali Berisha’s ruling coalition and Edi Rama’s Socialist-led opposition.
A Western diplomat who asked not to be named warned of a “great risk the results [of Sunday’s polls] would be contested, either by the outgoing coalition or by the opposition”.
EU officials said the vote “represents a crucial test for the country’s democratic institutions and its progress towards the European Union”.
Albania’s EU membership application has been rejected twice in the past, in part because of its governance problems.
Since the collapse of Enver Hoxha’s communist regime in 1990, polls in the country have been marred by violence and allegations of vote-fixing.
The electoral system appears to be struggling to meet international standards and the opposition has complained about irregularities in the voters’ register.
Opposition leader Rama said there were attempts by the ruling Democrats to buy voters.
“I strongly hope that people’s will would not be manipulated … but these elections are not like ones that a NATO or EU member country should have,” Rama said.
Berisha, a cardiologist who is seeking his third term as prime minister, dismissed Rama’s claims as an “opposition’s attempt to justify in advance its next electoral defeat”.
The prime minister’s Democrats have pledged new investments while accelerating Albania’s path towards the EU.
Berisha has also promised a six percent rise in wages and pensions to come into effect after the election.
Berisha, 69, said he wants “another four years, the most ambitious in my life, [in order] to realise the dream of Albania joining EU”.
Analysts have predicted a tight race between the two men. Both camps have claimed early exit polls put them ahead. The first preliminary results will be released on Monday.
The Central Electoral Commission said it had allowed the vote to be extended after the 1700 GMT closing time as many people were still waiting to cast their ballots About 600 international observers monitored the polls.