Albania's opposition has the lead in early vote counting. Immediately after polls closed on Sunday, the two major contenders in Albania's parliamentary elections had both claimed the upper hand.
After initial silence, the first results began to trickle out of the Central Election Commission on Monday morning. So far, the trend points to victory for the Socialist-led coalition of Edi Rama, the former mayor of Tirana, the capital city.
"Our data says we won over the forces of destruction," Rama was quoted as saying by the news agency Reuters shortly after the polls closed.
Monday's early news has thus far borne Rama's optimism out. With about 10 percent of the vote counted in most regions, Rama leads in Tirana and the large regions of Fier, Berat, Elbasan, Korce, Vlore and Gjirokaster.
An era ends?
The Socialists and Democrats differ little on Albania's foreign policy, and both sides want the country to join the European Union. However, the parties' confrontational relationship does not sit easy with the EU or Albania's NATO allies. Albania applied to join the 27-nation EU four years ago but has not yet become a candidate for membership over concerns about the state of its democracy.
A victory by Rama would deny Prime Minister Sali Berisha a third four-year term and, in fact, spell the end of the 68-year-old's political career. He had brought the country into NATO and began the initial discussions for EU membership, but opponents have criticized him for undermining democracy and allowing graft and organized crime to flourish.
Rama campaigned to reboot Albania's stalled EU bid and transplant his success in reviving the capital to the rest of the country. He has talked of introducing a progressive tax rate and easing the burden on small businesses.
Since Albania's first post-communism election in 1991, the country of 2.8 million people has yet to hold a completely free and fair election. Failure again would further set back its EU ambitions. Concern ran especially high after a short-staffed Central Election Commission announced that it would not immediately be available to certify the result.
After Rama lost the 2009 parliamentary election, security forces shot and killed four people amid the ensuing opposition protests.
Fears of unrest this time around grew after a shooting during the election in the northwestern Lac region that left an opposition activist dead and a Democrat candidate wounded. Police have yet to make an arrest.
Voting was extended slightly longer than planned on Sunday and no time has been set for the final official results.
mkg/dr (Reuters, AP)