Police in Albania say an opposition activist has been killed and a Democratic Party candidate injured in an election-day shootout. Sunday's poll will play a crucial role Albania's bid to join the EU.
Police have named the dead man as Gjon Pjeter Gjoni, 53, an activist of the opposition Socialist Party. The wounded man is Mhill Fufi, a parliamentary candidate of the ruling Democratic Party.
The incident happened in the town of Lac, 60 kilometers (37 miles) northwest of the capital Tirana.
Voting began on Sunday morning, with polls suggesting a tight race between the incumbent conservative Prime Minister Sali Berisha and his Socialist opponent Edi Rama. Others say Rama will receive a narrow victory.
A short-staffed electoral commission has raised the likelihood of a disputed result.
Since the collapse of the communist regime of Enver Hoxha in 1990, allegations of violence and vote fixing have marred subsequent polls in Albania, one of Europe's poorest countries. Since 1991, it has never held an election deemed "free and fair," and Western diplomats have said there are signs this time around of a campaign to coerce voters.
Albania has applied to join the EU but so far has not yet been made an official candidate for membership. Brussels says Sunday's elections "represents a crucial test for the country's democratic institutions and its progress towards the European Union."
Rama, a painter eduated in Paris and former mayor of the capital, Tirana, has alleged attempts by the ruling party to buy votes. "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," he said.
Berisha, a cardiologist who is campaigning on a promise of a 6 percent hike in wages and pensions, has dismissed the claims as an "opposition's attempt to justify in advance its next electoral defeat."
Rama lost the 2009 election, which descended into a political crisis. Four people were shot dead by security forces during protests.
Threat of disputed result
The vote is already being overshadowed by political row within Albania's central electoral commission, which some analysts say will raise the likelihood of a disputed result. It is unable to certify the vote, because replacements have not been made for three of the agency's seven members who quit in April in a dispute with Berisha's ruling coalition and Rama's opposition.
The country has 3.2 million eligible voters, and some half a million Albanian workers in neighboring Greece have returned home to cast their ballots to choose lawmakers for the country's 140-seat assembly.
About 600 international observers will monitor the polls.
jr/mkg (AFP, Reuters)