Early exit polls are indicating that Albanian Prime Minister Sali Berisha's Democratic Party has won another term in office in parliamentary elections Sunday.
The exit poll conducted by the Kosovo-based Gani Bobi showed Berisha almost 9 percentage points ahead of his Socialist rival, Edi Rama, giving Berisha the edge in forming a government. Official results are expected Monday.
According to the poll — conducted in 12 districts and broadcast by TV Klan — Berisha's right-wing party won 47.5 percent of the vote, with Rama trailing with 38.8 percent and former Prime Minister Ilir Meta winning 6.5 percent.
Another independent exit poll conducted by Italy-based IPR Marketing gave Berisha a 4 percent lead over Rama.
Supporters take to the streets
Hundreds of Berisha supporters took to the streets in Albanian cities waving party banners and honking horns to celebrate the unofficial results, and fireworks lit the sky in Tirana, the country's capital.
Rama disputed the polls and urged voters to wait for official results and not to be influenced by the celebrations.
"The process is ongoing," Rama said.
Voting ended with delays in some polling stations, with lines of people waiting to vote, but the head of the Central Election Commission, Arben Ristani said the vote was free of incidents.
The parliamentary election was seen as a crucial test of democracy to prove the Balkan country is ready for EU membership
Albania is under international pressure to make sure the vote is fair and free of the reports of fraud that have marred previous elections. Albania joined NATO on April 1 and wants to join the 27-nation European Union.
The U.S. ambassador underlined the importance of a trouble-free vote.
"The importance of these elections is that they be free, that they be fair, that they be transparent and that the will of the Albanian people, not the aspiration of the political parties, be fundamental," U.S. Ambassador John L. Withers said.
Police deployed for security
About 500 international observers and about 3,000 local officials were monitoring the vote, and 5,500 police officers were deployed to ensure security.
By the time polling ended more than 40 percent of the country's 3.1 million eligible voters had cast ballots, election officials said.
Digital cameras were banned from polling stations after the commission received complaints that they could threaten the secrecy of the vote.
Some 250,000 voters were unable to cast ballots because they did not receive the new required IDs in time and did not have a passport, which is also accepted. Opposition parties accused authorities of trying to curb the number of voters by stalling in sending the IDs.
After voting ended both Prime Minister Berisha and main opposition leader Rama hailed Albanians for turning out in larger numbers.
Berisha said preliminary figures showed turnout would be 15 percentage points higher than the 49 percent recorded four years ago.
International observers planned to present their preliminary assessments Monday.
The governing Democratic Party and the opposition Socialist Party were neck-and-neck in pre-election polls.
The two parties were offering similar platforms, pledging to fight poverty and take Albania closer to the European Union.
In total, some 4,300 candidates representing 34 political parties were vying for the 140 seats in Parliament.
Prime Minister Sali Berisha cast his ballot in downtown Tirana, telling reporters that "no Albanian will lose in this free and fair election in which Albanians" will prove they are ready to enter the EU.
Vote 'to change history'
Rama, the socialist leader and Tirana mayor, called on Albanians to vote "to change history." Rama had campaigned on his nine-year record in leading the capital, saying he fought corruption while improving salaries and creating jobs.
"All our international partners are watching our maturity and the will to become an integral part of the EU, in which holding free and fair elections is a precondition," Rama said after casting his ballot in the capital.
Construction engineer Fahri Meho, 47, said it was important that people made it clear Albania wanted to be part of Europe. "The voters are still far ahead of the politicians," he said, after casting his ballot in Tirana.
Another voter chastised politicians for overusing the country's aim of joining the EU.
"It's not only about Europe. It's about our traditions as well," 24-year-old Solida Parruca said, adding that she hoped the new government looks after Albania's needs before making pledges to foreign capitals and international organizations.
Three people have been killed in recent weeks in what local media said were politically motivated attacks, although that remains unclear.
A regional leader for the small Christian Democratic Party was driving when his car exploded earlier this month. One man was shot dead during an argument over a campaign poster, also in June. And an opposition lawmaker was gunned down in May.