Albania’s opposition Socialist Party has taken the lead in early counting after a tense national election watched closely by Western allies worried over democracy in the NATO country.
Both the Socialists and the ruling Democratic Party claimed victory within minutes of polls closing late on Sunday, raising the spectre of a disputed result in the Adriatic nation.
The Central Election Commission was initially silent, and only a trickle of results had come in by Monday morning. But the trend pointed to victory for the Socialist-led coalition of Tirana’s former mayor, Edi Rama.
With about 10 percent of the vote counted in most regions, the Socialist-led coalition was ahead in the capital, Tirana, and the large regions of Fier, Berat, Elbasan, Korce, Vlore and Gjirokaster.
Sunday’s vote will elect a new 140-member assembly.
Victory for Rama would deny Prime Minister Sali Berisha, Albania’s dominant figure since the fall of communist rule in 1991, an unprecedented third four-year term.
At 68, defeat could spell the end of his political career.
Berisha brought the country into NATO and onto the first rung of EU membership but is criticised by opponents for undermining democracy and allowing corruption and organised crime to flourish.
Rama says he will reboot Albania’s stalled bid to join the European Union and transplant his success in reviving the capital to the rest of the rundown country.
He has talked of introducing a progressive tax rate and easing the burden on small businesses.
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Since 1991, the impoverished country of 2.8 million people has never held an election deemed fully free and fair, and failure again would further set back its ambitions to join the European Union.
Concern was high after a political row left the Central Election Commission short-staffed and unable to certify the result.
A shooting during the election in the northwestern Lac region, in which an opposition activist was killed and a Democrat candidate wounded, deepened fears of unrest. The police said they had not yet arrested anyone.