TIRANA, Albania (AP) — An exchange of gunfire near a polling station wounded a candidate for parliament and left dead a supporter of a rival party during Albania's national elections on Sunday, tainting what had been a largely peaceful campaign season and threatening to further undermine the nation's bid to join the European Union.
The violence, which drew condemnation from an EU official, added to the already existing uncertainty surrounding the election: because of a political dispute, it's unclear when the vote results will be announced.
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.
It was not immediately clear who exactly did the shooting. The incident took place in the city of Lac, about 30 miles (50 kilometers) northwest of the capital, Tirana, and started with an argument, said the police spokesman, Tefik Sulejmani, who gave few other details.
A spokeswoman for the ruling Democratic Party, Laura Vorpsi, said Mhill Fufi was trying to move away some opposition supporters who were trying to bribe voters, and alleged that those opposition supporters "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. Corruption has plagued the impoverished country, and its elections have been marred by violence and vote-rigging.
The conservative prime minister, Berisha, and his close rival, Socialist Party leader Edi Rama, both hope Albania can gain eventual entry to the EU, and Sunday's election is 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.
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.
Ilir Meta, the leader of the Socialist Movement for Integration, confirmed that Gjoni, the man who died, was a supporter. Meta, whose party is allies with that of 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.
In other incidents across the country, a journalist was reportedly not allowed to enter a polling station and was pushed away from the area, while a camera belonging to a private TV station, Top Channel was broken and the cameraman reported to have been beaten.
Some 3.3 million registered voters were eligible to cast their ballots Sunday, the eighth national polls since the fall of communism in 1990. The month-long 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.
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."
Bu 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.
A political dispute over the country's election commission has meant it is uncertain when results of the vote will be announced, although the law mandates they be revealed no later than three days after the polls.
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.