By Benet Koleka 15 minutes ago
TIRANA (Reuters) - Albanians turned out in force on Sunday for an election watched closely by the West for evidence of the democratic maturity the country must show in order to advance toward membership of the European Union and NATO.
Voting started strongly in the morning and polling stations stayed open beyond the official 7 p.m. (1700 GMT) close to accommodate a last-minute rush as daytime heat abated.
Officials said turnout was likely to exceed the 56 percent mark seen in 2001.
There were no reports of the sort of political violence that has marred previous Albanian elections. But the two main parties were shown a yellow card for claiming victory with hours of balloting still to go.
"Both parties have broken the law by saying they have won," said Central Election Commission chairman Ilirjan Celibashi. "This is morally unacceptable and they must stop it."
Opposition leader Sali Berisha, a former president, claimed victory in person shortly after lunchtime.
President Alfred Moisiu said the premature victory claims were "contrary to the ethics code they signed and risk damaging the vote-counting and consequently the final results."
About 2.8 million people were eligible to choose the country's sixth parliament since the collapse of its one-party state in 1991 after 45 years of communism.
A pre-election opinion survey showed support divided about evenly between the incumbent Socialist Party of Prime Minister Fatos Nano and Berisha's right-of-center Democratic Party. Moisiu opposed conducting private exit polls on the grounds that hasty celebrations could lead to trouble if the final result turned out to be different from that projected.
In a departure from previous on-the-spot counts which usually led to charges of cheating, all ballots were being taking under police escort to 100 counting centers.
Albanians were taking their vote seriously, said U.S. Congressman Elliot Engel, an election observer. "People were staying in line in the heat. The election appeared to be going ahead smoothly."
A election commission spokesman said voting had not taken place in a 22 polling centers out of 4,764, 17 of them in one northern constituency. Local officials who refused to receive the ballot papers there would be prosecuted, he said.
Official results were expected on Monday and 450 international election monitors were expected to pass judgment on the fairness of the ballot once reports were in from the 4,700 polling stations.
Central Electoral Commission spokesman Erton Sinani told Reuters earlier that turnout was running strongly. "It's going really, really well. There have been no incidents impairing the integrity of the voting process," he said.
Berisha and Nano have molded politics in post-communist Albania for 14 years but may be threatened this time by the Socialist Integration Movement, a splinter party led by Nano rival Ilir Meta.