TIRANA (Reuters) - With almost all votes counted, Albania’s Socialist opposition was on course for a landslide victory on Tuesday in a parliamentary election, but there was still no word from defeated Prime Minister Sali Berisha.
Berisha, the country’s dominant political figure since the end of Stalinist rule in 1991, has not been seen or heard in public since Sunday, when Albanians voted to deny him a third consecutive term as premier.
With votes counted from 86 percent of polling stations in the impoverished NATO country, a Socialist-led alliance headed by former Tirana mayor Edi Rama was on track to take 84 of parliament’s 140 seats. Berisha’s Democrats were on 56.
The West is anxious to see a smooth handover of power in a country that is deeply polarized between the Socialists and Democrats and no stranger to political violence.
A peaceful transition would help revive Albania’s stalled bid to join the European Union, which has yet to accept Tirana’s application to join due to misgivings over its democratic maturity and deep-rooted corruption.
At 68, defeat for Berisha could mean the end of his career.
“We continue to wait quietly, respecting our democratic and European ethics, for our opponent to accept his loss and accept and join Albania’s great victory,” said Rama, a 48-year-old artist who, as mayor, won international acclaim for revitalizing Albania’s drab capital with splashes of paint and avenues of trees.
The EU, which will make Croatia its 28th member on July 1, commended the “overall orderly” conduct of the election.
“Now it is important that the remaining stages of the election process are conducted in line with EU and international standards,” EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fuele said in a joint statement.
“We call on all political parties to act in a constructive spirit for the good of the Albanian people,” they said.
The Socialists disputed Berisha’s last election win in 2009, and called supporters into the streets. Four were eventually shot dead by security forces.
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.
Rama says he will reboot Albania’s EU bid and transplant his success in overhauling Tirana to the rest of the rundown country of 2.8 million people that hugs the Adriatic coast between Montenegro in the north and Greece to the south.
He will inherit an economy feeling the effects of the crisis in the euro zone, particularly in Greece and Italy where some 1 million Albanian migrants work and send money home.
Unlike its Balkan peers, Albania has avoided recession, but remittances are down and there is concern over rising public debt and the government’s budget deficit.
Additional reporting by Benet Koleka; Editing by Mark Trevelyan