Albania's governing Democrats appeared headed for a narrow victory Tuesday in a parliamentary election seen as a crucial test for the poor Balkan country's ambitions to join the European Union.
The final results of Sunday's vote were not expected to emerge for another two days as election officials grappled with a new electoral system based on regional representation and electronic tallying.
With 80 percent of ballots counted by 10 a.m. (0800 GMT), Prime Minister Sali Berisha's Democratic Party had 46.55 percent of the nationwide vote, election officials said. The main opposition Socialists, led by Tirana Mayor Edi Rama, had 45.73 percent and a small leftist coalition won 5.55 percent.
Central Election Commission spokesman Leonard Olli said the counting was expected to finish later Tuesday, but up to 48 hours would be needed to calculate how parliament's 140 seats are allocated.
Berisha and Rama's parties campaigned on similar platforms, pledging to fight poverty and take Albania closer to the EU.
In its seventh parliamentary election since the fall of communism in 1990, Albania came under intense international pressure to make sure the vote was fair and free of the reports of fraud that have marred previous polls. Albania became a NATO member on April 1 and is seeking to join the 27-nation EU.
Monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said there were fewer irregularities than in previous elections, but reported "procedural violations related in particular to inking procedures and widespread family voting."
EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn said in a statement late Monday that further improvement was needed.
"These elections clearly underline the need for the Albanian political leadership ... to work hard in order to conduct elections in the future which fully meet international standards and have high public confidence of the Albanian voters," Rehn said.
Some 4,300 candidates representing 34 political parties were vying for the 140 seats in Parliament.