Tirana: Voters in volatile Albania started casting ballots on Sunday in local elections seen as a major test of the impoverished Balkans nation's stability as it seeks to emerge from two years of political paralysis.
Polling stations opened on Sunday at 7:00 am (0500 GMT) to allow the 3.1 million voters to cast their ballots for the councils and mayors of 308 municipalities and 65 cities.
The international community and the European Union see the polls as an important test for Albania as it struggles to break from a two-year political crisis.
The vote is being closely monitored by some 5,000 local and international independent observers.
The police will also be out in force to ensure a calm election day, with more than 1,000 officers stationed near the 994 polling stations.
The run-up to the elections was marred by violent incidents including three car bombings but observers and politicians said the campaign has actually been calmer than usual, without any fatalities.
Albania has been in political stalemate since the opposition rejected the results of parliamentary elections in June 2009, accusing the ruling right-wing Democratic Party of electoral fraud and demanding a recount.
The crisis reached its peak in January, when four people were killed and several injured at an anti-government protest in Tirana. Seven of the elite Republican Guards were briefly detained in connection with the deaths but only one is still in custody as a probe into the incidents continues.
Albanian Prime Minister Sali Berisha has dismissed the protesters who stormed the government buildings in January as "criminals paid by the opposition" to start a coup d'état.
Opposition leader Edi Rama blames the government for the unrest and has called the investigation into the killing "farcical".
Since the fall of Communism in the early 1990s, polls in Albania have regularly been marred by violence and the results contested.
Analysts fear that the results of Sunday's vote, although only for local positions, could still be hotly contested. The opposition Socialist Party is treating the vote as a referendum on the legitimacy of the government.
Opposition Tirana Mayor Rama is running for his fourth term in office.
His opponent is the former interior minister Lulezim Basha of the ruling Democratic Party. The mayoral race for the Albanian capital is expected to be very close.
Analysts say the elections will act as a barometer of support for the government and the opposition for the first time since the deadly violence in January.
"More than just local elections, these polls are a test of political strength of the two main parties: the (left-wing) opposition and the right-wing government of Sali Berisha," independent political analyst Lutfi Dervishi said.
A victory for the ruling party will be seen as a confirmation of its contested 2009 win at the polls, while the opposition would use a win to push for early elections.
Polling stations will close at 7:00 pm (1700 GMT) and first partial results could be known late Sunday.
First Published: Sunday, May 08, 2011, 15:16