TIRANA, Albania — An activist was killed and a politician wounded in a shootout during a closely contested election in Albania on Sunday that is being watched by Western allies worried about democracy in the NATO country.
The opposition left scents victory, which would deny Prime Minister Sali Berisha an unprecedented third successive four-year term since the fall of Albania's communist rule in 1991.
But the threat of a disputed result is rising, after a political row left the top electoral body, the Central Election Commission, short-staffed and unable to certify the result.
The shooting in the northwestern Lac region raised fears of confrontation in the Adriatic nation, which is deeply polarized between Berisha's Democrats and the Socialists of former Tirana Mayor Edi Rama and has seen election violence before.
Since 1991, Albania has never held an election deemed fully free and fair, and failure again would further set back its ambitions to join the European Union.
In Lac, television pictures showed bullet casings scattered across the street and the smashed rear window of a car. An opposition activist was killed and an election candidate of the ruling Democrats was wounded. Police said four guns were fired.
Berisha, a fiery former cardiologist, condemned the violence. "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.
Opinion polls are unreliable, but point to a narrow victory for the Socialists of 48-year-old Rama. He has been buoyed by an alliance with a small leftist party previously in coalition with Berisha. Rama lost the last election in 2009, called protesters into the streets and four were shot dead by security forces.
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 on Sunday could spell the end of his career.
Rama said the Lac shootout was an "effort to frighten people, to scare citizens away from the ballot boxes."
"I appeal for people to vote, because a decision that takes just a few minutes will decide not just the next four years but the fate of a generation," he said after voting.
Including Albanian migrant workers abroad, there are 3.27 million eligible voters. That is more than the official resident population of 2.8 million people, from Albania's rugged Alps in the north, down an Adriatic coastline still undiscovered by Western tourists, to the Ionian sea off Greece.
Official results are due in the evening, but a system by which party members count the ballots has repeatedly led to disputes and delays.
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."
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