Socialist Prime Minister Edi Rama is seeking a third term against a dozen parties united behind the main opposition Democrats, led by his long-time rival Lulzim Basha.
Albania’s opposition Democrat Party, led by long-time rival Lulzim Basha, claimed victory after the parliamentary election, but the ruling party has said it is too soon to call the result as early polls show the socialists won 49.4 percent of the vote.
With one-third of the votes counted on Monday, the left-wing Socialists of Prime Minister Edi Rama have 50 percent of the votes, followed by the main opposition center-right Democratic Party of Lulzim Basha with 39%.
An exit poll for Euronews Albania from the MRB, part of the London-based Kantar Group, projected that the Socialists will win about 46% of the vote while the Democrats are expected to capture about 42%. It is still unclear whether Socialists will get t he 71 seats they need to govern alone.
Preliminary turnout Sunday was almost 48%, slightly higher than four years ago.
Some 3.6 million eligible voters in Albania and abroad voted to elect 140 lawmakers for a four-year mandate in the Balkan nation.
Voting Sunday took place relatively smoothly, though with some glitches. The main issue was voters’ electronic identification, which was applied for the first time in the country. Some 167 out of 5,199 polling stations did not function.
Sunday marks a historic election in Albania, no matter the result. As two main political rivals battle, a growing influence from abroad may take the country by surprise pic.twitter.com/8nG8JyPGOj— TRT World (@trtworld) April 24, 2021
Despite the fractious campaign, international observers including ambassadors from European countries and the United States reported that the voting day itself passed off without major hitches.
"People have spoken. Now we have to listen to the people," Rama told reporters at his party headquarters after exit polls came out. The 56-year-old painter and former basketball player have been in power for eight years.
Basha said at his party headquarters: "Thanks to all of the Albanian citizens who chose the change."
Election commission chief Ilirjan Celibashi had pleaded with politicians to wait calmly for the count to be completed, praising the "integrity" of the voting process so far.
But many voters are jaded with a political culture where each side routinely accuses the other of cheating and corruption.
"Democracy is good, I don't blame democracy, but I do blame the political class, it fights only for itself, never for us," Kosta Ranxha, an 80-year-old retiree, told AFP.
Rama banked on a mass vaccination campaign to boost his popularity and has promised that 500,000 Albanians will be inoculated by the end of May.
He has also vowed to increase tourism and repair damage from a 2019 quake that left thousands without homes.
Democrat leader Basha has promised to speed up the push for EU membership and revive the economy with help for small businesses.
The two men traded barbs throughout the campaign, with Basha accusing his rival of vote-rigging and corruption and Rama belittling his opponent as a puppet of party veterans and President Ilir Meta.
Vote counting from Albania’s parliamentary elections started just before midnight on Sunday evening.— Balkan Insight (@BalkanInsight) April 26, 2021
Here are the results the CEC published so far:
Socialist Party - 49.69%
Democratic Party - 38.54%
Social Movement for Integration - 7.13 %
Read more: https://t.co/oaH2HtCdjE pic.twitter.com/wd7E4FlQpv
Bloody road to elections
Albania, which has a population of 2.8 million, but 3.6 million voters due to its large diaspora has a history of violence and allegations of fraud during elections in the three decades since the end of communism.
On Wednesday, a Socialist Party supporter was killed and four people were injured during a shootout following a dispute between Socialist and Democratic Party supporters.
Albania was granted European Union candidate status in 2014, but there has been little progress because of enlargement fatigue across the bloc and the lack of reforms within Albania.
Voters are eager for an end to widespread corruption. Albania ranks 104th in Transparency International's 180-nation list for 2020 and is accused by the United States of being a major source for marijuana production and other drug shipments.
Orestia Nano, an artist, said her main motive to vote was to end corruption.
"When I entered the University of Arts, there were people of my age who paid money to get into the school. There are people who have to pay money to get health treatments (in state hospitals)," she said.
"It (corruption) is pretty bad at really high levels.”
"We don't want young people to leave, we want them to stay here but we need more job opportunities," Berti Jusufaj, 50, told AFP at a polling station in Tirana, drawing attention to the hundreds of thousands of Albanians living elsewhere in Europe or the US.
"We are tired, young people study and train to find work, promises follow and then we get nothing," added Mariela Sherrja, 26, a finance expert.
The new government will have to deal with the coronavirus pandemic and rebuilding homes after a 2019 earthquake that killed 51 people and damaged more than 11,400 residences.