TIRANA, Albania — Albanians on Sunday voted in local municipal elections, a key step in their efforts to launch membership negotiations with the European Union.
Last year, Albania was granted EU candidate status and now Tirana is expecting to get approval for the launch of full membership negotiations.
Besides tangible results in the rule of law, the justice system and the fight against crime and corruption, Brussels also expects free and fair elections in post-communist Albania, where they have always suffered from violence or manipulation and political squabbling.
"The June 21 election test, almost a year after getting the country's candidate status, should serve as our main investment in launching the membership negotiations with the European Union," President Bujar Nishani said Friday in a call for participation.
About 3.4 million voters were eligible to cast their ballots in the country's seventh local elections since the fall of communism in 1990 to elect 61 mayors and 1,595 municipal counsellors. There were no immediate official figures on the turnout.
Voting started Sunday at 7 a.m. (0500 GMT) and ended at 7 p.m. (1700 GMT), although some stations remained open after that to allow people waiting in line to cast their ballots.
About 6,000 police officers were deployed near 5,300 polling stations and hundreds of army special troops were guarding government buildings and embassies. Initial reports suggested the voting had proceeded peacefully in most places with only a few minor acts of violence.
Officials from the governing Socialists and the opposition Democrats called on counting commissioners to be careful and fair in the process, which has previously been marred by differences and efforts of manipulation.
The focus is on the mayor of Tirana, where a 37-party coalition led by Prime Minister Edi Rama's Socialists has nominated former social affairs minister Erion Veliaj, while the 15-party opposition led by outgoing Mayor Lulzim Basha's Democrats tapped parliamentarian Halim Kosova as its candidate.
Following the polls, the country will change its local governance to only 61 town halls instead of the previous 373 town halls and communes in an effort to cut expenses and increase the independence of local authorities.
Around 200 international observers are monitoring the polls. They will report preliminary findings on Monday.
The law says results must be revealed no later than three days after the vote.