Albanians were voting in parliamentary elections on Sunday amid the coronavirus pandemic and a bitter rivalry between the two largest political parties.
Some 3.6 million eligible voters, including Albanians overseas, will elect 140 members of parliament out of some 1,800 candidates from 12 political parties or coalitions and those running independently.
No early or postal voting is allowed and people infected with Covid-19 cannot vote.
Following approval of electoral reforms last year, a new voters’ electronic identification, a partial depoliticising of the electoral commission and a pilot project on full digitalisation of the voting and counting process are being applied.
The hope is that post-communist Albania’s 10th parliamentary election will be free and fair. To date, voting always has been marred by irregularities.
Preliminary turnout at 11am on Sunday was 16.67%.
Albania, which has a population of 2.8 million and has been a Nato member since 2009, is looking forward to launching full membership negotiations with the European Union later this year. Sunday’s vote is considered as a key milestone on that path.
Prime Minister Edi Rama, of the governing Socialists, who are seeking their third consecutive mandate, wants to turn Albania into a “champion” in tourism, energy, agriculture and digital projects.
Pre-election opinion polls showed his left-wing Socialist Party likely to win.
Lulzim Basha, of the Democratic Party, accuses the government of corruption and links to organised crime, and pledges lower taxes, higher salaries and more social financial support.
Confrontations between supporters of the two main parties reached a climax on Wednesday in central Elbasan city, where a leading Socialist Party activist died.
Police said the victim was shot, allegedly by a member of the opposition Democratic Party, during an argument.
Though officially impartial, President Ilir Meta has turned into a firebrand government opponent, accusing Mr Rama of concentrating all legislative, administrative and judicial powers in his hands and running a “kleptocratic regime” that has bungled pandemic response and delayed the country’s EU integration.
Political leaders cast their ballots on Sunday morning and called on the people to vote.
Kosovar Prime Minister Albin Kurti, also an Albanian citizen, also voted.
President Meta was among the first to vote when polling stations opened, saying: “For the constitution, for the republic, for democracy, for Albania in Europe.”
Scores of foreign observers from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe and Western embassies are closely watching Sunday’s polls.
“We hope that every Albanian citizen goes and votes, free of fear, free of interference,” said US Ambassador Yuri Kim at a polling station in northern Shkodra. “This is your day.”
Albania has seen a significant fall in daily coronavirus cases in the past week despite political rallies around the country. More than 400,000 people have received their jabs.
An overnight curfew has been enforced, with restrictions on gatherings and mandatory mask-wearing.