TIRANA Albania's ruling party and opposition traded claims of victory on Sunday in a parliamentary election watched closely by Western allies worried about the state of democracy in the NATO country.
After a vote marred by a fatal shootout, opposition Socialist Party leader Edi Rama called on Prime Minister Sali Berisha to "prepare the transition" after two consecutive terms at the helm of the ex-communist Adriatic nation.
"Our data says we won over the forces of destruction," Rama told cheering supporters at his party headquarters.
He gave no figures and Berisha's Democratic Party swiftly disputed the claim. Two exit polls gave conflicting results and such surveys have not proved accurate in the past.
"I assure you it is our full belief that Albanians voted convincingly for our alliance," senior Democrat lawmaker Majlinda Bregu told supporters.
The claim and counter-claim, in the absence of any official word from the Central Election Commission, raised the specter of a disputed result in a country that has seen post-election confrontation before.
Analysts said the claims appeared aimed at rallying party faithful. Vote-counting is carried out by party rank-and-file, in a system Western diplomats say is flawed and frequently leads to disputes and delays.
Since the end of Albania's communist rule in 1991, the impoverished country of 2.8 million people has never held an election deemed fully free and fair, and failure again would further set back its ambitions to join the European Union.
Buoyed by an alliance with a small leftist party previously in coalition with Berisha, Rama scents victory.
But a political row has left the Election Commission short-staffed and unable to certify the result.
A shooting in the northwestern Lac region, in which an opposition activist was killed and a Democrat candidate wounded, raised fears of fresh confrontation in a country deeply polarized between the Democrats and the Socialists.
Television pictures showed bullet casings scattered across the street and the smashed rear window of a car. Police said four weapons were fired.
EU: "CRUCIAL TEST"
Rama lost the last election in 2009 and four people were shot dead by security forces when opposition protesters took to the streets.
Berisha, a fiery former cardiologist, was bidding for a third consecutive four-year term, unprecedented since the fall of communism.
"I voted No. 44 (Democratic Party). I touched fate. A feeling of pleasure engulfed me, a feeling I have not felt before," he said after voting in the capital, Tirana.
Berisha has dominated Albanian political life since the collapse of its Stalinist rule triggered a breakneck and sometimes violent transition to capitalism. At 68, defeat could spell the end of his career.
Rama pulled his three representatives from the seven-member Election Commission in April after the coalition government sacked a member whose party had switched sides to support the Socialists.
The Socialists and Berisha's Democrats differ little on Albania's goal of joining the European Union or its pro-Western policy. But their confrontational relationship does not sit easy with Brussels or Albania's NATO allies.
The EU says the election is a "crucial test" before Albania can draw closer to the 27-nation bloc, which Croatia will join in July. Albania applied to join four years ago but has not yet been made a candidate for membership.
The next government will take on an economy feeling the effects of the crisis in the euro zone, notably in Greece and Italy where about 1 million Albanians work and send money home. While Albania has avoided recession, remittances are down and public debt and the budget deficit are rising.
"I hope and wish the elections will turn out to be very good," shopkeeper Teuta Muskaj, a mother of two unemployed law graduates, said after voting in Tirana. "I expect better for the future of my children."
(Writing by Matt Robinson; Editing by Andrew Heavens)