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Albania votes after rowdy but peaceful campaign

TIRANA, Albania — Political parties in Albania entered their final day of campaigning for Sunday's general elections, considered a test for the Balkan country to shed its history of troubled campaigns as it seeks closer ties and eventual membership in the European Union.

Conservative Prime Minister Sali Berisha, 68, is seeking a third term and will speak at his Democratic Party's main election rally Friday in the capital Tirana.

He is facing a strong challenge from 48-year-old Socialist Edi Rama, whose campaign has concentrated on the enduring levels of poverty in the country that has 3.3 million registered voters.

Rama is leading in most opinion polls, though surveys are not generally considered reliable in Albania.

Both he and Berisha have run aggressive campaigns, with negative TV ads and daily party rallies around the country — leaving its cities and towns littered with blue Democrat and purple Socialist flags and pamphlets.

Rama's Socialists even paid for television ads in neighboring Greece, which has a large Albanian immigrant community.

Once one of the world's hardest-line Communist countries, Albania joined NATO in 2009 but has failed to gain candidate status from the European Union, which is pressing for broader democratic reforms and an improved election record.

"The parliamentary elections in Albania on 23 June represent a crucial test for the country's democratic institutions and its progress toward the European Union," Catherine Ashton, the EU's high representative for foreign affairs, and Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fule said in a recent statement.

The monthlong election contest has been relatively calm, unlike past elections that were frequently marred by violence. However, there have been reports of civil servants and even school children being pressured to attend pro-government rallies.

The country heads to the polls amid a continuing dispute over the country's election commission that remains dominated by Berisha allies despite the fracturing of his center-right coalition in mid-April. Berisha's failure to resolve the dispute over the Central Election Commission drew sharp criticism from the United States and EU.

Rama held his main campaign rally Thursday, addressing thousands of supporters in Tirana's central Mother Teresa Square. He accused Berisha of running the country with a corrupt elite who had "ruined the economy, society, democracy, and Albanians' European dream."

The Vienna, Austria-based Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe has sent a team of election monitors to Albania.