Albania goes to polls after tumultuous campaign
Albanians began voting in a parliamentary election on April 25 after a bitter campaign marked by fiery rhetoric and a gunfight between rival supporters that drew calls for calm from the United States and the European Union.
Prime Minister Edi Rama, who urged a "free and honest" vote early on April 25, is seeking a third term and has promised to quit if his Socialists fail to win a majority.
He faces a challenge from a dozen parties united behind the main opposition Democrats, whose leader Lulzim Basha told his supporters that Rama had failed for eight years and should be given no more chances.
All parties say they will deliver the reforms needed for the Balkan country to fulfill its dream of joining the EU, a year after the bloc agreed to open membership talks.
But despite the blasting pop music and flag-waving crowds at the final election rallies in Tirana, voters young and old have expressed frustration with the politics and economy of the country.
"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.
Opinion polls suggest Rama’s socialists have a lead over their rivals, but commentators said a high number of undecided voters made predictions tricky.
President Ilir Meta - an arch-enemy of Rama - was among the first to vote moments after polls opened in Tirana at 0500 GMT, pledging a "patriotic vote" to rebuild the foundations of the republic.
The country of 2.8 million people is among the poorest in Europe and the coronavirus pandemic has made matters worse, with the vital tourism sector suffering a huge slump.
Rama, an artist and former basketball player, is banking on a mass vaccination campaign to boost his popularity, promising that 500,000 Albanians will be inoculated by the end of May.
"We are fighting to get Albania out of the pandemic tunnel for good," he told supporters in the southern coastal city of Vlora on April 23, promising an economic transformation based on tourism, agriculture, energy and the digital economy.
His opponents say they will speed up the country’s EU membership push and revive the economy with help for small businesses.
"You can’t give another chance to a man who has failed for eight years, we are the future," Basha told supporters during his final rally in Tirana on April 23.
Both the main contenders 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 the president.
Meta, whose wife runs a smaller party allied to the Democrats, said "pitchforks" would be ready on April 25 in case the Socialists attempted to tamper with the votes - prompting an unimpressed reaction from the U.S.
"It is unacceptable for anyone to threaten that citizens will take up ’pitchforks’... These threats deserve condemnation," U.S. envoy Yuri Kim wrote on Twitter.
The rivalry between the two parties turned deadly in the final week of the campaign, when a row over alleged vote-buying descended into a gunfight in a city near the capital, leaving one Socialist supporter dead and four other people injured.
The OSCE, an international body sending monitors for the vote, called the election a vital measure of "national political maturity".
But many Albanians feel that time is running out for politicians to deliver on their promises.
"The current politics has done so much harm to the country," Endi Gallo, a 21-year-old student, told AFP, pointing to a sluggish economy that is pushing people to emigrate en masse to Italy, Germany or the U.S.
"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.
"We just want to work and build a better future."
Voting is set to continue until 1700 GMT, with officials promising results within two days.