* Tirana mayoral result depends on 'stray vote' count
* Socialists say extended count robs them of Tirana victory
* Monitors say vote was fair, stay to observe counting
(Adds Barroso spokesman, paragraphs 4-5)
By Benet Koleka
TIRANA, May 19 The European Commission president
cancelled a planned visit to Albania as anxious crowds gathered
outside the election commission headquarters on Thursday
awaiting the result of a close race for Tirana mayor.
The tension after May 8 mayoral elections -- closely watched
by the European Union as a pointer to Albania's suitability for
EU candidate status -- prompted European Commission President
Jose Manuel Barroso to cancel a Friday visit, his office said.
"Surely the most appropriate time (for Barroso to visit)
will be when all the political energies of Albania will be fully
focused on the issues of European integration," Albanian Foreign
Minister Edmond Haxhinasto told reporters.
Barroso's spokesman Michael Karnitschnig said the president
would visit the country when the political climate is more
appropriate to discuss EU matters.
"In the current circumstances such focused talks would not
have been possible....We want a national political consensus."
"Once we see a more constructive atmosphere in Albania we
will travel there."
The Tirana mayoral contest, between Edi Rama, the incumbent
and head of the opposition Socialist Party, and a former
interior minister from the ruling Democratic Party, has taken on
added significance because it follows bitterly disputed national
elections in 2009.
Democracy is less than 20 years old in Albania, which was
previously a xenophobic Stalinist state. It descended into chaos
in 1997, when thousands died in rioting after pyramid schemes
collapsed, wiping out people's savings.
CRUCIAL "STRAY VOTES"
An initial tally of quarter of a million votes cast in
Tirana found Rama had won by just 10 votes, but counting of
"misplaced and stray" votes -- still under way -- has so far
given his opponent Lulzim Basha a lead of 24 votes.
There are 37 more cases of stray ballots to be counted and
observers say the result will not be known for several days.
Several thousand Socialist supporters protested outside the
election commission offices for the second day running, saying
that their election victory had been stolen.
Some of them jostled police lined up in front of the
building to prevent Socialist parliamentarians from entering.
News reports said the Socialists had launched sympathy
protests in several towns where they had held onto power.
In north and central Albania Socialist supporters burned car
tyres and blocked roads in protest against the reversal of the
initial Tirana result.
Rama has accused the election commission, appointed by
parliament, of stealing votes. Calling on the people to take
their revolt to the streets, he accused the government of
abusing the will of the people.
"Following this act, Albania is no longer the country it was
because this act annihilates what little fragile democratic
coexistence existed between the government and the opposition,"
Rama said late on Wednesday.
Arben Ristani, the election commission chairman, defended
the count, saying all the votes cast should be counted.
Basha, the Democratic Party challenger to Rama's fourth term
as Tirana mayor, appealed for calm to help count the stray votes
and announce the final election result.
"The other candidate has decided not to respect the process.
Instead of observing the rule of law, he prefers to follow the
rules of the street," Basha said.
Foreign monitors have said the mayoral elections were
competitive and transparent but marred by political wrangling
and mistrust. They delayed their departure to watch the count.
(Editing by Adam Tanner and Tim Pearce)