By Benet Koleka
TIRANA (Reuters) - Albanians went to the polls on Sunday in a general election the West is watching closely to see if the Balkan state can meet democratic standards that will give it the green light to a future in the European Union and NATO.
In an extensive monitoring campaign, 450 international observers and 3,000 Albanians fanned out across the country to see if it has broken free from a tradition of rigged elections and its democracy has matured.
A few polling centres failed to open on time, but otherwise 2.8 million Albanians were set to elect 140 members of parliament. For the first time, 100 will be chosen directly in a first-past-the-post system and the rest proportionally.
Police spokeswoman Edlira Teferici said the "the situation was quiet and no incidents have been reported".
The two main parties are tied ahead of the sixth vote since the fall of communism, an election all players have been warned must show the country now has a mature democracy.
President Alfred Moisiu told his compatriots the result was less important than meeting election standards the West has tied to the Balkan nation's future in Europe and NATO.
Moisiu said the elections were "Albania's greatest challenge and chance to end a hard transition from communism" and to make up for time lost in contested polls and political crises.
"There are winners and losers in every election, but on Sunday meeting the election standards is more important than the result," Moisiu, elected by consensus, told the nation.
The European Union has made clear to Tirana it wants to see election standards met before it signs an association and stabilisation agreement with Albania, one of the early stages leading to eventual EU membership.
"The election for us in Brussels is a test case to see whether this country has reached the maturity to handle national elections according to international standards," Lutz Saltzmann, the EU ambassador to Albania, told Reuters.
The final opinion poll put the opposition Democratic Party of ex-president Sali Berisha just one point ahead of the Socialists of Prime Minister Fatos Nano, 35 percent to 34.
The two heavyweights have moulded politics in post-communist Albania for 14 years but may be in danger this time; the Socialist Integration Movement, a splinter party led by Nano rival Ilir Meta, was polling third with 10 percent.
Albania was isolated under a Stalinist dictatorship for 45 years. After communism collapsed, it lurched unsteadily on the road to democracy in 1991 and stumbled into anarchy in 1997 when the government failed to rein in pyramid saving schemes that bankrupted many people.
Elections were routinely denounced as rigged and two governments were driven from office by public unrest.
The last few years have been relatively stable, bringing Tirana's dreams of European Union and NATO membership closer to reality.