* 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 (Reuters) - 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)