Albanians have voted in a tense but peaceful municipal election that has become the flashpoint of a democratic crisis, with the opposition boycotting the polls and refusing to recognise its results.
The Balkan state has been hit by political turmoil since February, when opposition politicians resigned from parliament to launch sometimes violent street protests against Socialist Prime Minister Edi Rama.
Rama is accused of electoral fraud in a 2017 vote and of corruption – charges he denies.
Earlier this month, President Ilir Meta even tried to stop Sunday’s vote, citing the ongoing unrest. But the Electoral College, the country’s highest election authority, overruled him last Monday.
Meta then said he wanted to reschedule the elections for October, but Rama immediately dismissed it, insisting the vote take place on Sunday as the prime minister began moves to impeach the president.
Under intense domestic and international pressure to ensure a peaceful vote, Democratic Party leader Lulzim Basha on Saturday urged his supporters to refrain from violence.
Voting on Sunday began at 0500 GMT and ended at 1700 GMT, with preliminary results expected on Monday.
Groups of several dozen protesters gathered outside some polling stations in capital Tirana, shouting “Don’t vote!” and “Rama, go!”.
Some 12,000 police officers were deployed ahead of the polls, in which voters chose authorities to run the country’s 61 districts for the next four years.
In 31 of those districts, the ruling Socialist Party candidates ran unopposed.
While the opposition said the lack of competition made it a dubious election, the Organization for Security and Cooperation sent a team of 281 election observers to monitor the vote.
No major incidents were reported but turnout was low at just under 20 percent an hour before polls closed at 1700 GMT, according to election authorities.
Reporting from Tirana, Al Jazeera’s John Psaropoulos said the poor turnout “may not be an encouraging news for the ruling Socialist government”, adding that the opposition feared “dishonest” election results.
“It [poor turnout] does underline how controversial this election is and adds yet another parameter of questionability to it,” he said.
Psaropoulos said international monitors would announce on Monday whether or not the elections were conducted fairly. “But there were very few incidents and no real violence,” he said. “The real problem is this was essentially a one-party election.”
Despite months of demonstrations, which saw ballot boxes set on fire and petrol bombs hurled at Rama’s offices, protests petered out in recent days following a reported warning from the US State Department that the Democrats would be classified as a “violent organisation” if the protests continued.
Sunday’s vote is being seen as a key test of democracy in Albania before a decision on the country’s bid for the membership of the European Union (EU), expected in October.
Previously governed by a communist regime, Albania joined NATO in 2009 and is in line to begin EU membership talks, which remain elusive over lagging reforms and rule of law issues.