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TIRANA (AFP) – Albanians go to the polls on Sunday for a crucial vote that could determine whether one of Europe's poorest countries has a chance of joining the European Union in the foreseeable future.
But on the eve of the election, the agency tasked with certifying the vote, the Central Electoral Commission remained paralysed, with no progress made in a bid to replace three of the commission's seven members.
They quit in April over a dispute between conservative Prime Minister Sali Berisha's ruling coalition and Edi Rama's Socialist-led opposition.
Having failed to deliver clean elections since the fall of communism two decades ago, Albania desperately needs to prove that it is able to hold fair polls that meet international standards if it is to have a shot at joining the EU.
But even in the run-up to the elections, accusations of vote-buying and voter roll irregularities were already flying, sparking fears of a repeat of the 2009 polls which descended into a political crisis.
Eugen Wollfarth, head of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) mission in Tirana, called on politicians to "consider what is best for the country," which became a NATO member in 2009.
A Western diplomat who asked not to be named warned of a "great risk the results (of Sunday's polls) would be contested, either by the outgoing coalition or by the opposition."
Brussels, which has twice rejected Tirana's EU membership application, said the vote "represents a crucial test for the country's democratic institutions and its progress towards the European Union".
Since the collapse of Enver Hoxha's communist regime in 1990, polls in the country have been marred by violence and allegations of vote-fixing.
And once again, as Albania's 3.2 million voters gear up to pick lawmakers for the 140-seat assembly, the electoral system appears to be struggling to meet international standards.
Opposition leader Rama, a Paris-schooled painter, also alleges irregularities in the voters' register and attempts by the ruling Democrats to buy voters.
"I strongly hope that people's will would not be manipulated... but these elections are not like ones that a NATO or EU member country should have," Rama said.
Berisha, a cardiologist who is seeking his third term as prime minister, dismissed Rama's claims as an "opposition's attempt to justify in advance its next electoral defeat".
The prime minister's Democrats have pledged new investments while accelerating Albania's path towards the EU.
Berisha has also promised a six percent hike in wages and pensions to come into effect after the election.
Berisha, 69, said he wants "another four years, the most ambitious in my life, (in order) to realise the dream of Albania joining EU."
Analysts have predicted a tight race between Berisha's and Rama's parties.
Some 600 international observers will monitor the polls which open at 0500 GMT Sunday and close at 1700 GMT, while first preliminary results are expected on Monday.