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Albanian opposition cries foul in local elections

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(TIRANA) - The Albanian opposition condemned what it called voting "irregularities" in local elections Sunday seen as a test of the Balkan country's fragile democracy as it pushes to join the European Union.

The first official results from the vote to elect mayors and councillors in 61 municipalities were not expected until Monday, but the main opposition Democratic Party (PD) was quick to cry foul after polling stations closed at 1700 GMT.

"There have been irregularities, manipulations as well as pressure and threats against voters from the right," senior PD lawmaker Edi Paloka said in a statement, while also claiming a clear win for his party.

Since the fall of communism in the early 1990s, Albanian elections have been often marred by violence and accusations of fraud from all sides.

Prime Minister Edi Rama from the ruling Socialists for his part said the elections were "the most free and the most honest" that had ever been held in the country.

Some 3.3 million Albanians were eligible to cast their votes on Sunday and turnout stood at around 45 percent, according to party estimates.

The ruling coalition, which has whittled down the number of municipalities from 373 to 61 as part of a reform of local government, had also said it was confident of victory.

"More than the results, the real importance of these elections are the values of democracy which must triumph," parliamentary speaker Ilir Meta told AFP ahead of the ballot.

The election will also measure the popularity of the ruling Socialist-led coalition, which has been in power since 2013.

Opposition leader Lulzim Basha, the mayor of the capital Tirana, had billed the vote as a "popular referendum against the ruling majority".

The EU will be closely watching the outcome, with almost 400 foreign and 5,000 local observers sent to monitor the election.

Around 6,000 police were deployed to ensure security and supervise the transport of the ballot boxes.

NATO member Albania is one of Europe's poorest countries with 14.3 percent of the population living below the poverty line, according to official statistics, with a similarly high unemployment rate.

Albania obtained EU candidate status a year ago. The move was aimed at encouraging the country's progress in the fight against corruption and organised crime and establishing the rule of law.

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