TIRANA, Albania (AP)--Albanians chose a new parliament Sunday in elections that mark a crucial step in the tiny Balkan country's push for closer ties with Europe, but local observers raised concerns over voting procedures in rural areas.
Previous elections in Albania, which was sealed off from the world during decades of communist rule that ended in 1990, have been plagued by fraud and irregularities. Sunday's voting is being watched as a test of the impoverished nation's ability to hold a fair election.
Both NATO and the European Union have warned Albanian authorities that only free and fair elections will further its bid for membership in the organizations. The U.S. has said the poll will be a major milestone in Albania's transformation into a fully democratic European country.
"This is an opportunity we should seize because we have lost much time ... to show we are part of Europe," Albanian President Alfred Moisiu said after casting his ballot.
Local monitors said they were investigating reports of voting without identification documents, mainly in rural areas, as well as multiple voting and voting in groups, monitor Pjerin Marku said.
Moisiu appealed to political parties to exercise restraint and avoid making any announcements before polls close.
"That could damage the counting process and consequently the elections' final result," Moisiu said in a statement.
The observers appealed to political parties not to raise tensions.
The vote is being monitored by about 500 international observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the Council of Europe and a European network of non-governmental organizations. About 4,000 local monitors are also taking part.
The main contenders - Socialist Prime Minister Fatos Nano and his rival, Sali Berisha, a former president and leader of the Democratic Party - have stressed the election is a chance to show the world how far Albania's democracy has come. Pre-election polls show the two parties in a tight race.
Both the Socialists and Democrats back close ties with Washington and Albanian troop deployments in Iraq, Afghanistan and Bosnia. Integration in NATO and the EU is supported by both as well.
A key difference is the Democratic Party's proposal to cut taxes in half to promote investment, an idea the Socialists reject.
Some 2.8 million Albanians were eligible to vote, choosing from 22 political parties and coalitions running for the 140-seat parliament.
Official results weren't expected until late Monday.
Television station TV Klan was expected to release the only exit poll - the first such survey for elections in Albania.
The poll will be conducted by the Kosovo-based Gani Bobi organization, which in the past has conducted media monitoring, surveys and other research, but not exit polls. Gani Bobi said the poll will be based on 8,000 interviews in 450 polling stations.
Albanian police chief Bajram Ibraj said 6,350 police officers have been deployed throughout the country to prevent clashes between rival supporters and protect ballot boxes. [ 03-07-05 1742GMT ]