TIRANA, Albania (AP) — Albania's Socialist party appeared headed for a landslide election victory Tuesday, in what it says will act as a springboard for the country's future membership of the European Union.
Socialist supporters on foot and in cars braved a heat wave to celebrate in the city center, waving purple party flags as the country's election commission gave the party led by Edi Rama 52 percent of vote, with 80 percent of ballots counted.
"We continue to calmly wait for our opponent to accept defeat," Rama told supporters who chanted, "victory, victory."
Conservative Prime Minister Sali Berisha, who had been seeking a third term, had yet to concede defeat in Sunday's general election. Berisha's Democrats had 36 percent of the vote counted — 12 percentage points less than four years ago.
Both Rama, 48, and Berisha, 68, had campaigned on the pledge of gaining EU candidate status for Albania, which was once one of the world's most reclusive countries during its Communist years. Albania has already taken strides in joining international institutions — in 2009, it became a member of NATO.
"Let's continue together as a country and as a nation our effort toward the place we deserve — the family of the united Europe," said Rama in his victory speech late in the evening in front of hundreds of supporters at party headquarters.
But that would require swift and sweeping reforms in areas highlighted by the EU as the country's enduring weak points, including the judiciary, organized crime, and widespread corruption.
The Berlin-based corruption watchdog Transparency International ranks Albania 113 of 176 countries on its Corruption Perceptions Index, while the country's annual economic output is only $12 billion.
Wedged between crisis-hit Greece and Italy, Albania is heavily reliant on remittances from its migrant workers and has suffered since recession swept across southern Europe.
With growth muted, the new government will be tasked to slash budget deficits, modernize production and agriculture and breathe life into the emerging tourism industry.
Rama warned his supporters that the joy of the moment will not create "jobs, better education and health systems, or new roads."
"This victory is not the arrival but only the start. That change will not come overnight and easily. All together we should work and sacrifice to make it happen," he said.
Sunday's election was marred by a deadly shooting outside a polling station in northern Albania. International observers cited significant improvements from previous polls, but said the election process had suffered from intense party rivalry.
However, EU High Representative Catherine Ashton and Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fule praised the "overall orderly manner" of the Albanian elections.
But they added that once the results are certified, that a new government is formed quickly in order "to address the immediate challenges ahead to ensure that the country's reform agenda is vigorously pursued."
In an unusual gesture in the ever-squabbling Albanian politics, Rama also thanked his predecessor, Berisha, "for every good thing, which history tomorrow may evaluate with a higher objectivity than mine today."
"I wish him all the best in his private life," he said, though Berisha has not hinted he will withdraw from politics.
A pre-election dispute over the country's Central Election Commission could also complicate the final stages of the vote count.
The CEC is dominated by Berisha allies despite a damaging split in the conservative coalition in April.
Because of Albania's voting system, the popular vote does not directly translate into the number of seats each party will get in the 140-member Parliament.