By Llazar Semini, Associated Press
Albanian youth holding a national Albanian flag rides his bike in the main square "Skenderbeg" one day ahead of the upcoming general election in capital Tirana, Albania, on Saturday, June 24, 2017. Albania holds parliamentary elections Sunday, in a poll that will gauge the country’s readiness to start European Union membership talks. (AP Photo/Visar Kryeziu)
Albanians were voting Sunday in a general election that follows a landmark agreement between the country’s two biggest political parties to look past their bitter differences and back efforts for Albania to eventually join the European Union.
Holding a free and fair election is key to launching EU membership talks for the nation of 2.9 million, which is already a NATO member. After earning EU candidate status in 2014, Tirana has struggled to pass important reforms vital for its bid to advance to EU — namely deeply reforming its corrupted justice system.
Eighteen political parties are running for 140 seats in parliament in Sunday’s vote. The main contenders are Prime Minister Edi Rama’s Socialist Party and the opposition Democratic Party led by Lulzim Basha.
An agreement reached in May ended the three-month parliamentary boycott by the Democrats, who claimed that voting was open to manipulation. The election date was delayed a week and Rama’s Socialists promised greater oversight on election transparency.
All main parties campaigned on a reform agenda, pledging faster economic growth, pay hikes and lower unemployment, which stands at about 14 percent.
Some 6,000 police officers were on duty for election security, while more 300 international observers came to monitor the vote.
"We expect a better Albania and leaders to work to do what they have pledged at the campaign," Zenel Caka, 47, said at a polling station in Tirana.
Luan Rama of the Socialist Party for Motivation, the third main political party, said one member was injured following a quarrel and a shooting incident outside a polling station in Shengjin, 60 kilometers (37 miles) northwest of the capital, Tirana.
Police investigating the incident said they found a cartridge but no injured person was taken to the hospital. They said it did not disrupt the voting.
The Interior Ministry also reported hundreds of attempts to buy votes, a crime that may result in a jail term.
Central Election Commission said partial turnout at a quarter of polling stations by 10 a.m. was 12.6 percent, almost the same as in the previous election.
Albanians also celebrated Eid al-Fitr on Sunday, the end of the fasting month of Ramadan. In the early morning, thousands of Muslim believers said prayers at the recently-renovated Skanderbeg Square in Tirana.
All top leaders cast their ballots, congratulating Muslims on the holiday and urging citizens to vote.
"Today, Albania needs God more than ever," Rama said.
The western city of Kavaja was also holding a mayoral election.
Preliminary results from the vote are expected Monday.