TIRANA, Albania (AP) — One person died and two were injured Sunday in an exchange of gunfire close to a polling station in Albania, police said, as the country held crucial elections already marred by a dispute that could leave the result up in the air and the country without a government.
Both Conservative Prime Minister Sali Berisha and his close rival, Socialist leader Edi Rama, have hopes for eventual entry to the European Union, but the bloc has expressed concern over whether the country can manage to run fair and free elections.
Once one of the world's hardest-line communist countries, the impoverished country has had a rocky road to democracy, plagued by corruption and with past elections marred by violence and vote-rigging.
Police spokesman Tefik Sulejmani said that Gjon Gjoni, 53, died after being shot in an exchange of fire with Mhill Fufi, 49, a candidate for Berisha's governing Democratic Party, in the town of Lac, about 37 miles (60 kilometers) northwest of the capital Tirana. Fufi and another person were injured.
Sulejmani said the shooting started with an argument, but gave few other details. Rama postponed voting to head to Lac.
Some 3.3 million registered voters are eligible to cast their ballots in the eighth national polls since the fall of communism in 1990. Because of a battle over the country's election commission, it is uncertain when results will be announced, though the law mandates they be revealed no later than three days after the vote.
Berisha 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 told reporters after casting his ballot.
The premier declined to comment on the killing, saying he needed more information first.
Following aggressive campaigns by both Berisha's Democrats and the Socialists, streets in the capital of Tirana were uncommonly empty, but had long queues of people at polling stations.
The country's seven-member election commission, which prepares and holds votes, is down by three people, meaning it may be unable to certify the election. If the election is not certified, it means Parliament cannot be convened and no government formed.
In April, one of Berisha's main government allies withdrew from the coalition to join forces with the opposition. He was then ousted and replaced at the election commission by Berisha's Democrats. That move drew sharp criticism from the United States and the EU, who said it would erode people's confidence in the electoral process.
Three members affiliated with the opposition withdrew in protest, leaving the commission short of the people necessary for 5-2 approval. They have said they would consider returning to the commission to certify the election once they see the results.
Albania joined NATO in 2009 but has failed to gain candidate status from the EU, which is pressing for broader democratic reforms and an improved election record.