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TIRANA (Reuters) - Albania's mayoral elections, seen as a key test for the country in its campaign for EU membership, were competitive and transparent but marred by political wrangling and mistrust, international observers said Tuesday.
EU officials had said Sunday's poll had to be "free and fair" if Albania, a NATO member, wanted to be considered for candidate status by the end of the year.
Observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) stopped short of using that phrase but said voting went relatively well, despite problems during the buildup to the poll and vote counting afterwards.
"The 8 May local government elections ... were competitive and transparent, but took place in an environment of high polarization of mistrust between parties in government and opposition," the head of the observation team Jonathan Stonestreet told reporters.
"On election day, voting proceeded relatively well, albeit with procedural difficulties, but counting was delayed in many areas," he added.
As vote counting continued Tuesday, opposition Socialists claimed a historic victory while the ruling Democratic Party of Prime Minister Sali Berisha said it remained the main political power.
Stonestreet said bitter rivalry between the supporters of both parties disrupted preparations for the poll.
"As in previous elections, the two largest political parties did not discharge their electoral duties in a responsible manner, negatively affecting the administration of the entire process," he said.
Stonestreet said the rivalry led to acrimonious political rows between officials in the Central Election Commission.
The parties had questioned the integrity of elections organizers, undermining confidence in the poll, he added.
"Unfortunately, there were substantiated cases of pressure on public employees and others to support the (ruling) DP (Democratic Party," Stonestreet said.
After a peaceful polling day, the two main parties accused each other of trying to stall the counting Monday and Tuesday, stoking fears of manipulation and calls to protect the vote.
The slow count was seen as further damaging the legitimacy of the process. "The delay with the counting is without cause and will damage the standards," said Lutif Dervishi, head of anti-corruption group Transparency International in Albania.
Editing by Adam Tanner and Andrew Heavens