EUOBSERVER / BRUSSELS - Counting is underway in Albania following local elections, seen as a key test in the Balkan country's efforts to achieve EU candidate status later this year.
Brussels has made it clear that the vote must be free and fair after a series of political crises have struck the country following a national ballot in June 2009.
Sunday's (8 May) vote was marked by minor skirmishes, with the main parties disagreeing over whether EU standards had been met. A 525-strong international election observation team is expected to give its verdict on Tuesday.
Prime Minister Sali Berisha, head of the ruling centre-right coalition, insisted on the integrity of the ballot. "The elections were free and fair and everything was calm," he told a press conference after polling stations closed, newswires report.
Berisha said his centre-right coalition would respect the election result, whatever the outcome.
But Socialist opposition leader and mayor of Tirana Edi Rama, whose party claims the June 2009 election was stolen, denounced what he called "intimidation and pressure" suffered by voters leading up to and during Sunday's vote.
Officials were largely optimistic however, with all eyes now on the coming days. "I hope the counting process will go well, just like the election day," said Central Election Commission chairmen Arben Ristani.
Albania's 20-year old democracy has suffered a series of major challenges over the past two years, with four people killed and several others injured at an anti-government protest in Tirana this January.
Seven members of the elite Republican Guards were subsequently detained in connection with the deaths, caused after they opened fire inside a building, but only one is still in custody as the investigation continues.
Socialists denounced the event as murder, while prime minister Berisha said the protestors had been trying to launch a coup d'etat with guns disguised as umbrellas and pens.
In November the EU rejected Albania's application for EU candidate status, calling on the country's politicians to put past troubles behind them.
"Albania cannot miss the opportunity to demonstrate that it is conducting elections in line with European and international standards," EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fuele recently said.