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Latest update : 2009-06-29

Albanians voted Sunday in legislative elections seen as critical for the EU membership aspirations of one of Europe's poorest countries. Preliminary results are expected on Monday.

AFP - Albanians voted Sunday in closely fought legislative elections that passed off calmly, a crucial improvement in a country in which post-communist polls have been disrupted by violence.

But although election officials and the ruling Democratic Party reported no problems, the opposition socialists complained that there had been intimidation of their supporters.

Around 3.1 million voters were eligible for the election, which is seen as crucial for the European future of the Balkan country.

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 showed the race was too close to call between the governing Democratic Party of Prime Minister Sali Berisha and Edi Rama's opposition Socialist Party.

Preliminary official results were expected on Monday.

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.

But the Central Electoral Commission said that Sunday's vote had passed off normally.

Turnout in a selection of main towns across the country was running at between 40 and 45 percent three hours before polling stations closed at 7:00 pm (1700 GMT), said the Commission.

"Small problems with basic material, like the lack of marker ink to make sure people do not vote twice, were quickly solved," commission chairman Arben Ristani said.

But the Socialists alleged "intimidation of voters by people from the Democratic Party and problems with voter registers.

"The vote did not respect the standards and we will register and report all irregularities," said Fatmir Xhafaj, a high-ranking Socialist Party official.

This was brushed off by the Democrats who described 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."

His rival Rama said he expected Albanians to "express their will with maturity, and calmly."

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

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.

Electoral authorities had warned against any intimidation of voters and stressed their right to cast ballots in secrecy.

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.

Police have arrested suspects in connection with the other murders, that of a Democratic Party activist and a northern regional leader of the opposition Christian Democratic Party.

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

That means that 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.

First-time voter Tea Janku said she was voting for the European future of Albania despite finding all parties' policies similar.

"More than any outcome, the most important thing for me is to pass the international community's test for the standards of these elections," said Janku, a student.

Date created : 2009-06-28