Voters in Albania are choosing between 18 political parties running for 140 seats in parliament. Both the main contenders say they want to work toward Albanian accession to the European Union.
Polls opened in Albania on Sunday for elections largely pitting the Socialists of incumbent Prime Minister Edi Rama against the center-right Democratic Party under Lulzim Basha, though 18 parties in all are contending.
All the main parties have promised economic reform if elected, with the country's high rate of unemployment - 14 percent - one of the most pressing issues facing what is one of the poorest countries in Europe.
Rama has also vowed to continue a fight against corruption within Albania's judicial system, with Brussels making such reform a prerequisite for the EU accession talks that both major parties have agreed to work toward.
"One thing is certain: The cure to the cancer that took Albania hostage has already begun," Rama told a campaign rally this week.
Rama has, however, in his turn been accused by his Democratic rival, Basha - an ardent admirer of US President Donald Trump - of links to organized crime connected with Albania's illicit cannabis trade. The premier has denied the accusations.
Latest opinion polls showed the Socialists with a slight lead over the Democratic Party, but observers consider a "grand coalition" of the two main parties a likely outcome.
Calm campaigning, but rampant corruption
Previous elections in the country have been overshadowed by fraud and even violence, but this time around campaigning has been much calmer than usual, with few election posters adorning the streets of the capital, Tirana.
However, up to a month before the elections, the Democrats had threatened to boycott the polls over fears of an unfair vote. A deal giving the party key ministerial posts in the run-up to the polls overcame their resistance.
Muslim-majority Albania, which has a population of just 2.9 million, has been a candidate for EU accession since 2014, but judicial corruption remains a hurdle to its joining the bloc.
In its latest report, in November, the European Commission slammed the country's justice system as remaining not only corrupt, but "slow and inefficient."
The election is being monitored by 3,000 observers, including a delegation from the European Parliament.
Holding free and fair elections is mandatory if EU accession talks are to take place.
Polling stations were to close at 1700 UTC, with first results expected in the course of Sunday night.
tj/jlw (AP, AFP)