TIRANA, Albania (AP) — The Socialists appeared to hold an early lead as counting in Albania's election got under way Monday, a day after a deadly shooting outside a polling station.
Despite the shooting, international election monitors noted overall improvements — seen as key test for the country's aspirations to forge closer ties with the European Union. With less than a quarter of Sunday's votes counted, the Central Election Commission said the Socialists' coalition was taking 52 percent of the vote, while the Democrats had 37 percent. The Democrats, who are led by Prime Minister Sali Berisha, won 48 percent of the popular vote in 2009.
In Albania, parliamentary seats are awarded on a party's share of the vote in each of 12 districts. For example, a party which won 50 percent of the vote in a 12-seat district could expect to win six seats. There are 140 seats in parliament.
Turnout was 54 percent of some 3.3 million registered voters, according to CEC estimates. Sunday's election was the eighth since the fall of communism in 1990. Election observers from the Vienna, Austria-based Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe said an overhaul of voting procedures last year had helped improve the country's election standards, but expressed disappointment at a pre-election dispute over the makeup of the election commission.
"Voting proceeded well, but with technical irregularities, and counting was delayed in many areas," said Roberto Battelli, head of the OSCE monitoring mission. International observers said that the political mistrust between the two main political forces "tainted the electoral environment."
"We have seen politics permeate election administration at all levels," said Conny McCormack, who headed a 300 army of observers of the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights. Confident of winning, the Socialist leader Edi Rama said his opponent had a role to play in Albania's future.
"This is the moment in politics when losers should take part in the victory of their country ... Albania should hold its head high after these elections," Rama said. Full results were not expected until Tuesday, and the Democrats insisted the early returns were misleading.
"When all the ballots are counted we shall be the winners," party official Gerti Bogdani said, calling for a "peaceful, calm and regular" vote-counting process. Although the election campaign was highly acrimonious, it was generally considered peaceful until Sunday's shooting in the north Albanian city of Lac.
A police spokesman said Gjon Gjoni, 49, died after being shot in an exchange of fire that also wounded Mhill Fufi, 49, a candidate for Berisha's governing Democratic Party, and a relative of Fufi. The violence drew condemnation from an EU official.
"Violence is simply not acceptable and cannot be tolerated," Ettore Sequi, the EU ambassador to Tirana, told Associated Press television." These elections are a crucial test for the democratic maturity of the country a test for the smooth functioning of the Albanian institutions."
Though the counting has started, there are still questions as to when the results will be announced following a political dispute over the country's election commission. However, the law mandates they be revealed no later than three days after the polls.
Albania, now a NATO member despite a rocky road to democracy, has been denied EU candidate status twice since 2009 because of criticism that it has not done enough to fight corruption and proceed with democratic reforms that include its ability to hold elections that comply with international and European standards.
Last month, parliament held an extraordinary session to pass the last three laws in a series of 12 key recommendations required by the EU as part of the country's quest for eventual membership.
Associated Press writer Nebi Qena in Tirana contributed to this report.