TIRANA, Albania – Albania's left-wing Socialist Party appeared headed for a new governing mandate based on preliminary election results Monday from an election seen as crucial to the country's bid to launch membership negotiations with the European Union.
The Central Election Commission's said that with more than three-quarters of the ballots counted the Socialist party of Prime Minister Edi Rama had won about 48 percent of the votes, compared with 29 percent for the opposition Democratic party of Lulzim Basha.
Election authorities said the partial count pointed to the Socialists winning 73 seats in Albania's 140-member parliament.
Voter turnout in Sunday's election fell to 46.4 percent, 7 points lower than in 2013.
Holding a free and fair election was a key benchmark for Albania to begin membership talks. The nation of 2.9 million, which is already a NATO member, EU candidate status in 2014.
More than 300 international observers monitored the polling. They hailed the political agreement that led the opposition to participating in the election, but noted some problems due to delayed preparations.
"The continued politicization of election-related bodies and institutions, as well as widespread allegations of vote-buying and pressure on voters, reduced public trust in the electoral process," a joint statement from the European Parliament, the Council of Europe and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said.
The observers plan to produce a final report that will review how the vote count, the announcement of results and complaints were handled.
A statement from the United States embassy in Tirana noted "incidents of vote-buying, photographing of ballots and intimidation of voters" but added that "they were not so widespread as to change the overall outcome of the elections."
Basha spoke to reporters late Sunday evening, thanking Albanians for voting "with a European dignity" on a religious day and under extreme hot temperature.
Majority Muslim Albania celebrated Eid al-Fitr on Sunday, the end of the fasting month of Ramadan.
Follow Semini at http://twitter.com/lsemini