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Albanians Vote in Election After A Bitter Political Fight

TIRANA, Albania (AP) — Albanians are voting in parliamentary elections on Sunday amid the virus pandemic and a bitter rivalry between the two largest political parties.

Some 3.6 million eligible voters, including Albanians overseas, will elect 140 lawmakers among some 1,800 candidates from 12 political parties or coalitions and those running independently. No early or postal voting is allowed and people infected with COVID-19 cannot vote.

Following approval of electoral reforms last year, a new voters’ electronic identification, a partial depoliticizing of the electoral commission and a pilot project on full digitalization of the voting and counting process are being applied. The hope is that post-communist Albania’s 10th parliamentary election will be free and fair. To date, voting always has been marred by irregularities.

Preliminary turnout at 11 a.m. was 16.67%.

Albania, which has a population of 2.8 million and has been a NATO member since 2009, is looking forward to launching full membership negotiations with the European Union later this year. Sunday's vote is considered as a key milestone on that path.

Prime Minister Edi Rama of the governing Socialists, who are seeking their third consecutive mandate, wants to turn Albania into a “champion” in tourism, energy, agriculture and digital projects.

Pre-election survey polls showed Rama’s left-wing Socialist Party likely to place first.

Lulzim Basha of the Democratic Party accuses the government of corruption and links to organized crime, and pledges lower taxes, higher salaries and more social financial support.

Confrontations between supporters of the two main parties culminated Wednesday in central Elbasan city, where a leading activist of the Socialist Party died. Police said the victim was shot, allegedly by a member of the opposition Democratic Party, during an argument.

Though officially impartial, President Ilir Meta has turned into a firebrand government opponent, accusing Rama of concentrating all legislative, administrative and judicial powers in his hands and running a “kleptocratic regime” that has bungled pandemic response and delayed the country’s EU integration.

Political leaders cast their ballots Sunday morning and called on the people to vote. Kosovar Prime Minister Albin Kurti, also an Albanian citizen, also voted.

“For the Constitution, for the republic, for democracy, for Albania in Europe,” said President Ilir Meta as he cast his ballot, among the first when the polling station opened.

Scores of foreign observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and Western embassies are closely watching Sunday’s polls.

“We hope that every Albanian citizen goes and votes, free of fear, free of interference,” said U.S. Ambassador Yuri Kim at a polling station in northern Shkodra. “This is your day.”

Albania has seen a significant fall in daily coronavirus cases in the past week despite political rallies around the country. More than 400,000 people have received their jabs.

An overnight curfew has been enforced with restrictions on gatherings and mandatory mask-wearing.

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By LLAZAR SEMINI Associated Press

Follow Semini at http://twitter.com/lsemini

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