Preliminary results show that Albania's left-wing Socialist Party appeared headed for a new governing mandate in crucial elections in the Balkan country's bid to launch membership negotiations with the European Union.
The Central Election Commission's preliminary results after counting one-third of the votes Monday morning show the Socialist party of Prime Minister Edi Rama winning almost half the votes compared to 28 percent of the opposition Democratic Party of Lulzim Basha.
The Socialist Movement for Integration (LSI), traditionally the king making party in Albanian politics, was set to win 15 percent of the vote.
But 52-year-old Rama, an artist and former Tirana mayor who took power in 2013, seemed likely to secure an absolute majority in the 140-seat parliament, allowing the Socialists to rule alone.
Election authorities said the partial count pointed to the Socialists winning at least 75 seats in the 140-member parliament.
Turnout fell to 47 percent, or 6 points lower than in previous polls in 2013.
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 and that earned EU candidate status in 2014. International observers are expected to hold a news conference with a preliminary statement in the afternoon.
While politicians stayed cautiously quiet about the results, Albanian media were less reserved, with the Gazeta Shqiptare newspaper declaring "victory for the Socialists".
The rival Tema daily announced "a second term with an overwhelming majority" for Rama in parliament.
The premier himself did not proclaim his victory but struggled to hide his satisfaction on his Facebook account, where he posts regularly.
He wished Albanians a "good day" over a map of the country filled in with the pink color of the Socialist Party and the text "75+", an allusion to the number of seats he expects to win.
According to local media, Rama sent messages to his Socialist MPs in the night telling them that the party would remain in charge.
Basha spoke to reporters late Sunday evening thanking Albanians for voting "with a European dignity" in a religious day and under extreme hot temperature.
The voting was extended by one hour due to low turnout that was attributed to religious festivities and temperatures that reached 39 degrees (102 Fahrenheit.)
Albania with a two-third Muslim majority celebrated Eid al-Fitr on Sunday, the end of the fasting month of Ramadan.
Rama succeeds in convincing Albanians for reforms
A tall former basketball player who often dresses casually in T-shirts, Rama campaigned with pledges to boost economic growth and complete sweeping reforms demanded by Brussels of Albania's notoriously corrupt judicial system.
"Prime Minister Edi Rama succeeded in convincing Albanians that to implement reform of the judicial system and establish rule of law, he needed a second mandate," said independent analyst Alexander Cipa.
He said Rama also benefited from the "significant failure of the right-wing opposition, even in its traditional strongholds", explained in part by the "weakness" of the Democrats' leader, 43-year-old lawyer Lulzim Basha.
Basha, an admirer of U.S .President Donald Trump, struggled to emerge from the shadow of his mentor Sali Berisha, a 72-year-old former president and PM who remains a towering and unifying figure on the right.
While parties traded some accusations of vote-buying and intimidation, the election appeared to pass off more calmly than votes in previous years.
Since communism collapsed in the early 1990s, Albanian elections have been marred by fraud, violence, disputed results and bitter rivalries bordering on hatred.
'Door to EU'
Sunday's vote was seen as a test of democratic maturity in the country of 2.9 million people -- and confirmation of no major fraud, disputes or incidents would be welcome sign in Brussels.
"These elections have opened the door for Albania to join the European Union. Albania and Albanians deserve it," said Dylbere Cani, a 60-year-old shopkeeper in the capital.
Albania has been an official candidate for EU accession since 2014, and Rama hopes to open negotiations by the year's end, but the road to membership 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 noted that criminal gangs behind Albania's lucrative but illicit cannabis cultivation remained at large.
The Democrats accused Rama of links to organized crime and turning the country into a "drugstore" -- accusations the premier rejected.
Although Sunday's soaring temperatures and the end of Ramadan were thought to have affected turnout, disillusionment with the state's economic development may also have played a part.
Albania remains one of the poorest countries in Europe with an average monthly wage of 340 euros and unemployment affecting nearly one in three young people, fueling the highest emigration levels in the world.
The two main parties offered similar socio-economic platforms, liberal in inspiration.