Albanian leader concedes defeat, soothes fears of poll dispute
TIRANA (Reuters) - Albanian Prime Minister Sali Berisha conceded defeat on Wednesday after losing a parliamentary election at the weekend, ending three days of public silence and soothing fears of a messy handover of power in the volatile NATO country.
The concession speech to supporters in downtown Tirana clears the way for the capital's former mayor and leader of the opposition Socialist Party, Edi Rama, to take power after a landslide victory on Sunday.
Berisha waited until almost the very last ballot paper was counted to appear in public, raising concern in the West that he might dispute the result.
His concession will be taken as a sign of growing democratic maturity in the Adriatic nation, which has been rocked by repeated bouts of political unrest since the fall of communist rule in 1991. A smooth handover would help revive Albania's stalled bid to join the European Union.
"Accepting the result of the elections, I wish the opponent good luck," Berisha said at his party headquarters.
"We lost this election and all responsibility for the loss falls only on one person, me," he said, to cries of "No, no!" from supporters.
With votes counted from 99 percent of polling stations, the Socialist-led opposition alliance was poised to take 84 of parliament's 140 seats, well ahead of Berisha's Democrats on 56.
Albania's dominant political figure since the end of more than four decades of Stalinist rule in 1991, Berisha was credited with taking Albania into NATO in 2009 and onto the first rung of EU membership. But his opponents accuse him of undermining democracy and allowing graft and organized crime to flourish.
The country's EU membership bid has been on ice since it applied to become an official candidate four years ago, due to concern in the 27-nation bloc over democratic maturity, crime and corruption.
Rama, who won international acclaim during a decade as Tirana mayor for revitalizing the drab capital, says he will reboot the EU bid and transplant his success in the city to the rest of the rundown country of 2.8 million people.
Berisha announced his resignation from the Democratic Party but said he would remain a lawmaker.
(Writing by Matt Robinson; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)
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