Albania's socialist PM on course for third term

Tirana (AFP) –


Albania's prime minister looked set for a third term in power on Monday, as preliminary election results gave his Socialist Party a commanding lead.

Edi Rama, in power since 2013, has not yet claimed victory following Sunday's poll, which was closely watched in European capitals as Albania pushes to open talks on EU membership.

But the Socialists had captured roughly 50 percent of the vote after ballots were counted from just over one-third of polling stations, the election commission said on Monday morning.

An opposition alliance under the Democrat Party -- whose leaders continued to claim victory on Monday -- were on 39 percent and another party opposed to Rama was polling at 7 percent.

The campaign was marked by personal insults between candidates and further deteriorated in the final week when a gunfight between rival supporters left one person dead.

Despite the febrile atmosphere, voting day itself passed off peacefully, with US and EU ambassadors urging all sides to stay calm and wait for the official result.

- 'What a dawn' -

The early figures showed a "clear trend" in favour of the Socialists, who are heading for a bigger victory than in the 2017 election when they won an overall majority, political analyst Skender Minxhozi told AFP.

But he warned that the early data needed to be treated with caution, final results not expected until Tuesday.

The prime minister -- a former basketball player and keen artist -- posted a photo of the sunrise on Facebook with the words: "What a dawn in Tirana!"

During his time in office, he has focused on ambitious infrastructure projects and during the election campaign made much of a promise to vaccinate 500,000 people against coronavirus by the end of May.

But the tiny Balkans country of 2.8 million people remains one of Europe's poorest, and NGOs regard it as one of the continent's most corrupt.

The European Union agreed to open formal membership talks last year in a country overwhelmingly in favour of joining, but no date has yet been set for the first meeting.

- 'We are tired' -

Rama and Democrat leader Lulzim Basha traded insults throughout the campaign, joined by President Ilir Meta -- a former Socialist who set up a splinter movement and makes no secret of his contempt for the prime minister.

The president caused consternation last week by declaring that "pitchforks" would be at the ready in case the Socialists rigged the ballot -- a common claim after elections in Albania.

A row over allegations of vote-buying in a city near the capital Tirana in the final week of the campaign led to a gunfight between Democrat and Socialist supporters, leaving one dead.

Many voters have expressed frustration with the toxic political culture, corruption and lack of opportunities for young people that has helped push some 1.7 million Albanians to move abroad.

"We are tired, young people study and train to find work, promises follow and then we get nothing," finance expert Mariela Sherrja, 26, told AFP.