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Latest update : 2009-06-29

The two main rivals in Albania's closely fought general election have appealed for calm before results are announced on Monday. The poll is seen as crucial for the country's hopes of one day joining the European Union.

AFP - Albanians face a tense wait Monday for results of closely fought general elections that passed off smoothly, a crucial improvement in a country where violence has marred post-communist polls.

Exit polls from Sunday's elections gave a slight lead to the governing Democratic Party of Prime Minister Sali Berisha, which his rival Edi Rama of the Socialist Party played down.

Both appealed for calm until results are announced, but several dozen Berisha supporters gathered in front of his party's headquarters in the capital Tirana, some driving along streets honking car horns.

"I call on Albanians to follow the results (of the ballot count) with maturity, without evoking ideas of those triumphing or those losing," said Berisha.

His rival Rama, the mayor of Tirana, urged voters to "wait for the results and do not join in the game of (exit) polls as long as the process continues."

"The real result is still in the ballot boxes, patience is needed," Rama stressed.

Commission spokesman Leonard Olli said the official count would only begin as late as midnight. Preliminary official results are due to be announced at a media conference at 5 pm (1500 GMT) on Monday.

Around 3.1 million voters were eligible for the election seen as crucial for the European future of the Balkan state.

It comes almost three months after Albania joined the NATO military alliance and took its first steps towards joining the EU by filing for membership.

Opinion polls had shown the race was too close to call between the governing Democratic Party of Berisha and Rama's opposition Socialist Party.

This was the seventh election since the collapse of the country's Stalinist regime in 1991, with some 4,000 candidates vying for 140 parliament seats.

All previous elections in the post-communist era have been disputed and sullied by violence.

The electoral commission said Sunday's vote passed off normally, with a turnout of between 40 and 45 percent by 4:00 pm (1400 GMT) in various towns throughout the country.

But the Socialists alleged "intimidation of voters by people from the Democratic Party and problems with voter registers," although the Democrats brushed this off and hailed the poll as "calm and correct".

Casting his ballot earlier at a Tirana school, Berisha said: "With these elections, which will be free and fair, Albanians will sign (their support) for the European project."

Rama, the mayor of Tirana, said: "The vote is the only possibility to make history and today every Albanian has such an opportunity."

President Bamir Topi said the vote "will show the world our country wants to consolidate democracy in order for Albanians to be able to circulate freely through Europe, with which Albania is determined to integrate."

Richard Bosch of elections watchdog the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) told AFP there had been fewer problems than in previous elections.

But even ahead of the vote, some incidents were registered, with three people killed during campaigning -- including the murder in early May of Socialist deputy Fatmir Xhindi.

Scrutinised by 3,000 observers, the poll was held in accordance with a new electoral law adopted at the request of the EU and the wider international community.

But despite the changes, the results were expected to be strongly contested by the losers. That would likely cause a delay of several months in the formation of a cabinet.

Analysts estimated neither the Democrats nor the Socialists will be able to obtain the necessary 71-seat majority in the parliament.

That means former prime minister Ilir Meta, leader of the opposition Movement of Socialist Integration, could play a decisive role with an estimated four percent of the vote.

Date created : 2009-06-29