TIRANA (Reuters) - Albania's Socialist opposition urged Prime Minister Sali Berisha to accept defeat on Monday after it took what appeared to be a convincing lead in an election seen as a test of the NATO country's democratic credentials.
The Socialist Party of former Tirana mayor Edi Rama said that with more than 20 percent of votes counted, its alliance was on course to take at least 80 of parliament's 140 seats.
There was no word from Berisha, whose Democrats had also claimed victory within minutes of polls closing on Sunday evening after an election marred by a fatal shootout.
Berisha was bidding for an unprecedented third successive four-year term, extending his dominance of Albanian political life since the fall of communist rule in 1991. At 68, defeat could mean the end of his career.
Votes were still being counted on Monday, but pointed to a Socialist victory in most major population centers, including the capital Tirana.
An official projection, based on around 20 percent of votes counted, gave the Socialists 84 seats and the Democrats 56.
"The trend is very clear," said Socialist official Bledi Cuci.
The European Union and Albania's allies in the NATO military alliance are anxious to avoid confrontation in a country that is no stranger to political unrest.
"The sooner Berisha accepts defeat, the better for Albania,", Spartak Ngjela, a former political prisoner allied to the Socialists, told reporters at the party's headquarters.
A fiery former cardiologist, Berisha took Albania into NATO and onto the first rung of EU membership but his opponents accuse him of undermining democracy and allowing graft and organized crime to flourish.
Rama, a towering former basketball player who shot to fame as mayor by splashing paint and planting trees across the drab capital, says he will reboot Albania's stalled bid to join the European Union and transplant his success in Tirana to the rest of the rundown country.
Rama, 48, has talked of introducing a progressive tax rate and easing the burden on small businesses.
Since 1991, the impoverished country of 2.8 million people has never held an election deemed fully free and fair. Another failure would further set back its ambitions to join the EU.
Albania applied to join the 27-nation bloc four years ago but has not yet been made a candidate for membership due to concerns over the state of its democracy.
Concern was high after a political row left the Central Election Commission short-staffed and unable to certify the result.
A shooting during the election in the northwestern Lac region, in which an opposition activist was killed and a Democrat candidate wounded, deepened fears of unrest. The police said they had not yet arrested anyone.
"Will the world accept the election?," asked a newspaper seller in central Tirana who gave her name as Naze.
"A person killed on voting day is regrettable, but that is nothing compared to what some people feared," she said.
Foreign election observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) scheduled a news conference for 5 p.m. (10:00 a.m. EST).
Rama lost the last parliamentary election in 2009 and four people were shot dead by security forces when opposition protesters took to the streets.
"Important that all parties in Albania fully respect the result of their parliamentary election today," Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said on Twitter.
(Writing by Matt Robinson, editing by Gareth Jones)
(c) Copyright Thomson Reuters 2013. Check for restrictions at: http://about.reuters.com/fulllegal.asp