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- Albanian politician
Tirana (AFP) - Socialist Prime Minister Edi Rama was on his way Monday to securing a second term, offering him the chance to lead the Balkan country into European Union accession talks.
Preliminary results from 80 percent of polling stations showed the Socialists won about 49 percent of votes in Sunday's parliamentary election, while their main rivals in the centre-right Democratic Party took less than 30 percent.
The Socialist Movement for Integration (LSI), traditionally the kingmaking party in Albanian politics, was on track to win 15 percent of the vote.
But 52-year-old Rama, an artist and former Tirana mayor who took power in 2013, seemed likely to secure an absolute majority in the 140-seat parliament, allowing the Socialists to rule alone.
Voter turnout, at less than 50 percent, was one of the lowest in an Albanian election since the fall of communism in the early 1990s.
While politicians stayed cautiously quiet about the results, Albanian media outlets were less reserved, with the Gazeta Shqiptare newspaper declaring "victory for the Socialists".
The rival Tema daily announced "a second term with an overwhelming majority" for Rama in parliament.
Rama himself did not proclaim victory, though he struggled to hide his satisfaction on his Facebook account, where he posts regularly.
He wished Albanians a "good day" over a map of the country filled in with the pink colour of the Socialist Party and the text "75+", an allusion to the number of seats he expects to win.
- Weak rival -
A tall former basketball player who often dresses casually in T-shirts, Rama campaigned with pledges to bolster economic growth and complete sweeping reforms of Albania's notoriously corrupt judicial system, which have been demanded by Brussels.
"Prime Minister Edi Rama succeeded in convincing Albanians that to implement reform of the judicial system and establish rule of law, he needed a second mandate," said independent analyst Alexander Cipa.
He said Rama also benefited from the "significant failure of the rightwing opposition, even in its traditional strongholds", explained in part by the "weakness" of the Democrats' leader, 43-year-old lawyer Lulzim Basha.
Basha, an admirer of US President Donald Trump, struggled to emerge from the shadow of his mentor Sali Berisha, a 72-year-old former president and prime minister who remains a towering figure on the right.
The vote was seen as a test of democratic development in the EU-hopeful country of 2.9 million people, where elections over the past quarter-century have been marred by fraud, violence and disputed results.
A statement from Brussels said Sunday's polling "took place in a calm and orderly manner", while international observers from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) said "fundamental freedoms were respected".
But the OSCE also warned that public trust in the electoral process had been reduced by "the continued politicisation of election-related bodies and institutions, as well as widespread allegations of vote-buying and pressure on voters".
- Long road ahead -
Albania has been an official candidate for EU accession since 2014 and Rama hopes to open negotiations by the year's end, but the road to membership remains long.
In its last report on Albania in November, the European Commission said the judicial system remained "slow and inefficient" and marred by corruption.
It also noted that criminal gangs behind Albania's lucrative but illicit cannabis cultivation and trafficking remained at large.
The Democrats accused Rama of links to organised crime and turning the country into a "drugstore" -- accusations the premier rejected.
Although Sunday's soaring temperatures and the end of Ramadan were thought to have affected turnout, disillusionment with the state's economic development may also have played a part, analysts said.
Albania remains one of the poorest countries in Europe with an average monthly wage of 340 euros ($380) and unemployment affecting nearly one in three young people, fuelling the highest emigration levels in the world.
The two main parties offered similar socio-economic platforms, liberal in inspiration.
"These elections have opened the door for Albania to join the European Union and Albanians deserve it," said Dylbere Cani, a 60-year-old shopkeeper in the capital.