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28 June 2009
The people of Albania are going to the polls in parliamentary elections that are seen as a key test for the Balkan country's ambition to join
Western observers are closely monitoring Sunday's parliamentary elections in Albania to see whether one of Europe's poorest countries has enough democratic credentials to join the European Union.
The ballot, which includes as front-runners for prime minister a dominant post-communist era-leader and a Socialist, is Albania's seventh parliamentary election since Communism collapsed in 1990,
But none of the previous votes met international standards amid reported fraud and other irregularities.
The campaign for Sunday's elections was marred by violence as three people, including politicians, were killed in what local media have called "politically motivated attacks".
Amid these turbulent times, incumbent Prime Minister Sali Berisha told a final campaign rally that he is the best choice to bring Albania towards the European Union after successfully steering the country towards membership of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in April.
He says: "We gather here in this square as NATO members, the Euro-Atlantic dream, we made it reality,"
But the opposition has blamed the government and the prime minister for a series of scandals, including embezzlement of public funds for a major highway project.
They also accuse the prime minister of using his position for the personal enrichment of himself and his
Mr. Berisha has admitted to Euronews television, which is partly funded by the European Commission, that corruption has been a problem in his country. But the prime minister says he has been tackling financial wrongdoing in his administration.
"Two-and-a-half years ago corruption was a system in my country," he said. "But we [made] some very, very, very strong decisions to fight it. First: the entire administration was taken out of the conflict of interests. Second: we put some criteria in our offices that nobody could use public money for private or personal purposes."
Polls show Mr. Berisha faces a strong challenge from Tirana mayor and Socialist Party leader Edi Rama. He is an artist known outside Albania for his project to paint the Tirana's drab buildings in vibrant - and sometimes clashing - colors.
Rama has told his supporters "There is no reason why Albania cannot be a beautiful lady among others at the European Union." Surveys show the two main political parties - Rama's Socialists and Berisha's Democratic Party - to be neck-and-neck.
Albania's three-million voters are choosing from 4,000 candidates for 140 parliamentary seats. First official results are expected Monday.