Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Albanian opposition doubts vote count, claims win

Mon May 9, 2011 12:41pm EDT

* Albania's opposition claims local election wins

* Parties divided over whether vote met standards

* EU wants to see dialogue, free and fair vote

By Benet Koleka

TIRANA, May 9 (Reuters) - Albania's opposition Socialist Party expressed doubt on Monday on whether votes would be fairly counted in mayoral elections, vital to the Balkan country's EU ambitions, which it said it had won.

The former Stalinist nation has never held elections deemed fully free and fair, and Sunday's mayoral votes were seen as a test of its readiness for European Union candidate status, an important step towards membership.

"We have won the elections, clearly and unequivocally," Socialist leader Edi Rama, who is also mayor of the capital Tirana, told supporters. "We have prepared for two years for this beautiful day. The list of victories is growing."

The Socialists have refused to accept the result of the 2009 election that gave Prime Minister Sali Berisha a second four-year term. They accuse his government of corruption.

The EU is concerned that the lingering dispute has stymied the country's development.

Vote counting continued on Monday but it appeared the Socialists were winning after initial results.

"I thank all the vote commissioners for applying the anti-manipulation plan to the letter," Rama said. "The battle continues. Now it is the turn of the vote counters to show the same honesty and stamina as the commissioners."

With only a fraction of ballots counted, Rama appeared to be winning the key race for Tirana mayor against former Interior Minister Lulzim Basha, but an exit poll saw Basha as the winner.

The main parties disagreed over whether the elections met EU standards. A 525-strong international election observation team was due to issue its assessment on Tuesday. A Western vote expert told Reuters voting had been generally orderly.

Democracy is just 20 years old in Albania, which is still suffering post-Communist growing pains. Four people were shot dead in January when anti-government protests turned violent.

Berisha, under EU pressure to provide proof the Balkan nation is a functioning democracy, called Sunday's vote "the best elections ever held."

The European Union rejected Albania's application to become a candidate for membership last November. It has made clear the mayoral vote must be free and fair if Albania, a NATO member, wants to be considered for candidate status by the end of this year.

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