TIRANA, Albania (AP) — Albania’s national elections Sunday were marred by violence after an exchange of gunfire wounded a candidate and killed a supporter of a rival party, tainting what had been a largely peaceful campaign and threatening to undermine the country’s bid to join the European Union.
The violence near a polling station, which drew condemnation from an EU official, added to the existing uncertainty surrounding the election. Though the leader of the main Socialist Party has claimed victory, it’s unclear when the results will be announced because the body that oversees elections in the Balkan country hasn’t enough members to certify them constitutionally following a political dispute. However, the law mandates they be revealed no later than three days after the polls.
Election day has been overshadowed by the violence. A police spokesman said Gjon Gjoni, 49, died after being shot in an exchange of fire that also wounded Mhill Fufi, 49, a candidate for Prime Minister Sali Berisha’s governing Democratic Party. An opposition party leader identified Gjoni as a supporter. Another man, Fufi’s relative Kastriot Fufi, 39, was also wounded.
Details surrounding the incident, which took place in the city of Lac, about 30 miles (50 kilometers) northwest of the capital, Tirana, were sketchy. However, the police spokesman confirmed that it started with an argument.
A spokeswoman for the ruling Democratic Party, Laura Vorpsi, said Fufi was trying to move away some opposition supporters who were trying to bribe voters, and alleged that they “responded with shooting rounds.”
“The Democratic Party harshly denounces any act of violence,” Vorpsi said.
Once one of the world’s most hardline communist countries, Albania has had a rocky road to democracy over the past couple of decades. Corruption has plagued the impoverished country, and its elections have been marred by violence and vote-rigging.
Some 3.3 million registered voters were eligible to vote, the eighth national polls since the fall of communism in 1990. The monthlong contest had been relatively calm until election day, though there had been reports of civil servants and even school children being pressured to attend pro-government rallies.
Some polling stations remained open after the original close time but most have closed and ballot boxes have started to be transported to counting centers nationwide.
The conservative prime minister, Berisha, and his close rival, Socialist Party leader Edi Rama, have both expressed the hope that Albania can gain eventual entry to the EU, and Sunday’s election was seen as a test of whether the country can run a fair and safe vote.
Berisha declined to comment on the killing after casting his ballot, saying he needed more information first. The prime minister invited all Albanians to take part in the vote and turn Sunday “into a day of festivities and good understanding.”
“I assure you that your vote will be fully respected,” Berisha said.
Later Berisha expressed condolences to the victim’s family and called on his opponents not to exploit the death “for political capital.”
“I ask police and prosecutor’s office to investigate with absolute priority the event, discover the truth and the circumstances and the responsibility of each one,” he said.
Rama, meanwhile, denounced “certain segments of police” for collaborating with “criminals” and insisted that participation in the vote was the best way to respond.
“It is barbarous that in an election day, in the midst of Europe, a human is shot dead from criminals supported from police,” he told reporters.
In the evening Rama came to claim victory “based on operational data” and called on police and election authorities to guarantee the process.
“We are here as unshaken and invincible guarantors of each ballot which has been cast today to take Albania at the address set from its fate — the European Union,” he said in front of his supporters at party headquarters.
Ilir Meta, the leader of the Socialist Movement for Integration, confirmed that Gjoni, the man who died, was a supporter. Meta, whose party allies with Rama’s, also blamed police and “criminal elements” of the ruling Democrats, whom he alleged were exerting pressure at polling stations.
“Sali Berisha is not Albania’s premier any more. He cannot leave power without shedding blood,” Meta said.
The shooting wasn’t the only incident: A journalist was reportedly not allowed to enter a polling station, while a camera belonging to a private TV station, Top Channel was broken and the cameraman reported to have been beaten.
Albania’s president called for unity in wake of Sunday’s violence. “Peace, calm, citizens’ life is important,” Bujar Nishani said. “I appeal for calm and maturity because, we may vote for different parties, but we are one nation.”
But the EU’s top diplomat in Albania took a hard stand on the violence.
“I want to say something very clear, very firm. Among the international and European standards for elections, there is the refusal of violence,” said Ettore Sequi, the EU ambassador to Tirana.
Albania joined NATO in 2009. But it has failed to gain candidate status from the EU, which is pressing for broader democratic reforms and an improved election record.
Some 400 international observers and about 8,000 local ones are monitoring Sunday’s election.