Albania’s prime minister called on his supporters to celebrate victory on Tuesday, as almost complete election results suggested he had clinched a record third term in office.
The election commission said the Socialists were on course for 74 seats in the 140-seat parliament after Sunday’s vote, making Edi Rama the first Albanian leader to win three mandates.
With more than 95 percent of polling stations accounted for, the main opposition alliance was trailing with 59 seats, said commission chief Ilirjan Celibashi.
The conduct of the election was closely watched by diplomats from the United States and the European Union, with Albania pushing to open membership talks with the bloc.
Although the campaign was filled with bitter insults between the candidates and marred by a gunfight between rival supporters, observers said the polling day itself and the counting process had gone smoothly.
The EU on Tuesday praised the organisation of the election and called on all parties to respect the outcome.
Parties regularly dispute the outcome of elections in the Balkan country of 2.8 million people –- the last vote in 2017 prompted street protests and some opposition MPs boycotted parliament.
Rama, an artist and former basketball player in power since 2013, told supporters on social media to gather to “embrace victory” in the capital Tirana’s central square on Tuesday evening.
“If you do the work, you get rewarded. There are no shortcuts in life,” he wrote, quoting basketball legend Michael Jordan.
However, Lulzim Basha, leader of the main opposition Democrat Party, has insisted his alliance won the election and he is yet to concede.
During the campaign, Rama promised to accelerate the rollout of coronavirus vaccines and complete reconstruction from a 2019 earthquake that left thousands homeless.
But the focal point of the campaign was the clash of personalities between Rama, Basha and current President Ilir Meta.
Rama accused his two rivals of having no policies, only an obsession with getting rid of him. They accused him of vote-rigging and corruption.
Meta, whose wife runs a movement allied to the Democrats that performed badly in the election, had promised to quit if the Socialists won in a fair election.
On Tuesday, however, he struck a more neutral tone, urging all parties to show “maturity and composure”.
Watchdogs regularly rank Albania as one of the most corrupt countries in Europe, and it is also one of the continent’s poorest.
Rama is pushing to transform it into a tourism hub with new airports and better infrastructure, but critics complain of corruption and worry about environmental damage.