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Albanians vote for new government with corruption on their mind

A man casts his vote during the parliamentary elections at a polling station in the village of Surrel, near Tirana on April 25, 2021. (Photo by AFP)

Albania held a parliamentary election on Sunday likely to be a neck-and-neck contest between the ruling Socialists and the opposition as corruption weighs heavily on voters in one of Europe's poorest nations.

The Socialist Party (PS) of Prime Minister Edi Rama is seeking a third term, while Lulzim Basha's Democratic Party (PD) wants a return to power eight years after losing an election.

Polls opened at 7 a.m. (0500 GMT) and will close at 7 p.m (1700 GMT).

The vote is seen as crucial to Albania's hopes of joining the European Union and all parties are promising the reforms demanded by the bloc, which agreed to open formal membership talks last year.

"I want to see changes in all the sectors. I want Albania to move towards European Union," said Edmond Katanxhaj, 64, voting at a polling station in Tirana.

Albanian opposition Democratic Party leader Lulzim Basha speaks to the press after casting his vote during the parliamentary elections at a polling station in Tirana on April 25, 2021. (Photo by AFP)

But many voters are jaded with a political culture where each side routinely accuses the other of cheating and corruption.

"Democracy is good, I don't blame democracy, but I do blame the political class -- it fights only for itself, never for us," Kosta Ranxha, an 80-year-old retiree, told AFP.

Opinion polls suggested the Socialists had a lead over their rivals but commentators said a high number of undecided voters made predictions tricky.

'Historic day'

The country of 2.8 million people is among the poorest in Europe and the coronavirus pandemic has made matters worse, with the vital tourism sector suffering a huge slump.

Rama, an artist and former basketball player, is banking on a mass vaccination campaign to boost his popularity, promising that 500,000 Albanians will be inoculated by the end of May.

He has also promised to boost tourism and repair damage from a 2019 quake that left thousands without homes, while also pleading for the election day to pass peacefully.

Albania's Prime Minister Edi Rama prepares to cast his vote during the parliamentary elections at a polling station in Tirana on April 25, 2021. (Photo by AFP)

"We should never forget that we are all one big family," said Rama after he voted.

His opponents say they will speed up the push for EU membership and revive the economy with help for small businesses.

After casting his ballot, Democrat leader Lulzim Basha called for a huge turnout and told reporters: "It is a historic day, a day when all Albanians can express themselves."

Both the main contenders traded barbs throughout the campaign, with Basha accusing his rival of vote-rigging and corruption and Rama belittling his opponent as a puppet of party veterans and President Ilir Meta.

The rivalry between the two parties turned deadly in the final week of the campaign, when a row over alleged vote-buying descended into a gunfight in a city near the capital, leaving one Socialist supporter dead and four other people injured.

Both the EU and US called for a speedy investigation.

Earlier, the OSCE, an international body sending monitors for the vote, called the election a vital measure of "national political maturity".

But many Albanians feel that time is running out for politicians to deliver on their promises.

The State Election Commission said that as of noon, turnout was 27%, and no incidents had been reported.

Voters are eager for an end to widespread corruption.

A woman casts her vote during the parliamentary elections at a polling station in Tirana on April 25, 2021. (Photo by AFP)

Orestia Nano, an artist, said her main motive to vote was to end corruption.

"When I entered the University of Arts there were people of my age who paid money to get into the school. There are people who have to pay money to get health treatments (in state hospitals)," she said.

"It (corruption) is pretty bad in really high levels.”

The new government will have to deal with the coronavirus pandemic and rebuilding homes after a 2019 earthquake that killed 51 people and damaged more than 11,400 residences.

Twelve political parties are taking part to elect the 140-seat parliament, with opinion polls showing the PS and PD running close to be the party with most votes. The PD is heading an opposition coalition.

Voting finishes at 1700 GMT, with officials promising results within two days.

(Source: Agencies)

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