updated 7/3/2005 11:25:46 PM ET 2005-07-04T03:25:46

Albanians voted Sunday in parliamentary elections seen as a key test of the country’s post-Communist rule as it pushes for membership in NATO, and exit poll data gave the opposition party of former President Sali Berisha the advantage.

Berisha and Prime Minister Fatos Nano said the election was a chance to show the world how far Albania’s democracy has come. Albania, in addition to its efforts to join NATO, is also seeking closer ties with the EU. Both warned Albanian authorities that only free and fair elections will further the Balkan country’s aspirations.

Although the voting was generally calm, one election official was shot dead in the capital Tirana, polling stations in parts of the country remained open for an additional three hours, and local election monitors were investigating reports of irregularities in rural areas.

General support for U.S. ties
Both the Socialists and Democrats back close ties with Washington and Albanian troop deployments in Iraq, Afghanistan and Bosnia. Integration in NATO and the EU is supported by both as well.

The exit poll, conducted in 15 districts out of 100 total nationwide and broadcast by TV Klan, showed Berisha’s Democratic Party leading in 11 electoral districts, while Nano’s Socialists led in one. They were also tied in three. It gave a margin of error of 3 percentage points.

Berisha urged his supporters to show restraint, but said he was confident of victory.

“There should be no triumph, only modesty,” he said as hundreds of party supporters gathered in celebration in front of the Democratic Party headquarters.

Senior Socialist official Gramoz Ruci called the poll results “ridiculous,” while other party members noted that TV Klan had backed Berisha’s Democratic Party during the campaign.

If the Democrats win, Berisha, who served as Albania’s president from 1992 to 1997, could make a comeback. A 60-year-old cardiologist, he was forced to resign following the collapse of investment schemes in 1997 that plunged the country into anarchy.

The exit poll, the first-ever held in this former communist country, was conducted by the Kosovo-based Gani Bobi organization. Official results were expected late Monday, at the earliest.

Contentious electoral history
Previous elections in Albania — which was sealed off from the world during decades of Communist rule — have been plagued by fraud and irregularities. The failure of previous elections has badly stalled development in this country of 3.2 million people which is among Europe’s poorest.

The winner of Sunday’s poll could be forced into a coalition to form a government. Former Prime Minister Ilir Meta, who broke away from the Socialists last year, could hold the key third place.

Some 2.8 million Albanians were eligible to vote, choosing among 22 political parties and coalitions running for the 140-seat parliament — 100 elected directly and 40 for party lists.

Preliminary figure of turnout was 56 percent, according to the central election commission.

The vote was monitored by about 500 international observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the Council of Europe and a European network of non-governmental organizations. About 4,000 local monitors will also take part.

More than 6,000 police were deployed to provide security.

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