Socialist Prime Minister Edi Rama, 52, is seeking a second term in office.
Albanians were voting in a parliamentary election on Sunday hoping to end a tradition of fractious and disputed polls and prove the country’s readiness to begin European Union accession talks.
Socialist Prime Minister Edi Rama (pictured), 52, is seeking a second term in office, pledging to boost economic growth and complete sweeping reforms demanded by Brussels of Albania’s notoriously corrupt judicial system.
Opinion polls showed the Socialists slightly ahead of their rivals from the centre-right Democratic Party, whose leader Lulzim Basha is an ardent admirer of US President Donald Trump.
The 43-year-old has accused Rama of links to organised crime and turning the Balkan state into a "drugstore", referring to Albania’s lucrative but illicit cannabis trade.
The premier rejects the accusations, telling a rally this week that he needs a strong mandate "to do four times more than we did in 44 months".
The Democrats had threatened to boycott the election until a month ago over fears the vote would be unfair, but they struck a deal giving them key ministerial posts in the run-up.
Polling stations opened at 07:00 am (0500 GMT) on a sweltering summer’s day in the capital Tirana, where Basha called on Albanians to "come and vote for change, in spite of the heat" after casting his ballot.
He has pledged to create a "New Republic" with economic reforms including tax cuts, internships for youngsters and farmer subsidies.
Since communism collapsed in the early 1990s, Albanian elections have been marred by fraud, violence, disputed results and bitter rivalries bordering on hatred.
After a 2009 election, the Rama-led Socialist opposition cried fraud and urged supporters onto the streets for months of protests. Three people were shot dead at demonstrations in 2011.
While the rhetoric remains lively, this time "there is an agreement between the political parties… to have a calmer election campaign than we have seen previously," said analyst Ardian Civici.
He believes a possible outcome is a "grand coalition" between the two main forces in the 140-seat parliament — pointing out that the overriding aim of both sides is to open EU accession talks.
After failing to win an outright majority in 2013, Rama formed a rocky coalition with the Socialist Movement for Integration, the party of President-elect Ilir Meta, who for 10 years has played kingmaker in Albanian politics.
More to do
While national statistics showed the economy grew 3.46 percent last year, up from 1.0 percent in 2013, Albanians said they were yet to feel the benefit.
Unemployed mother Shqipe Berberi, who lives in the western city of Kavaje, said she could not afford to feed her children properly.
"Those who have been in power did nothing," the 43-year-old told AFP.
Albania remains one of the poorest countries in Europe and its unemployment rate affecting nearly one in three young people has spurred the highest emigration levels in the world.
Home to 2.9 million people, the state became a candidate for EU accession in 2014 and Rama wants to open negotiations by the end of the year, but the road remains long.
In its last report on Albania in November, the European Commission said the judicial system remained "slow and inefficient" and marred by corruption.
It also warned that criminal gangs behind cannabis cultivation remained at large.
Some 3,000 election observers, including more than 300 foreigners, were monitoring the vote. Polls were due to close at 1700 GMT, with first results expected during the night.
Minor incidents of voter intimidation and vote-buying were reported by local media and political parties.