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Albanian premier concedes election defeat; Socialists in line to lead

TIRANA, Albania — The conservative prime minister who has dominated post-communist politics in Albania conceded election defeat late Wednesday, taking personal responsibility for the heavy loss to the rival Socialists after losing the support of fed-up voters.

Sali Berisha, who had been seeking a third straight term as prime minister in Sunday's general election, also announced to party supporters he would step down as leader of his center-right Democratic Party.

The 68-year-old's party was beaten handily. With all of the votes counted, Socialist Edi Rama was ahead with 53 percent, compared to just 36 percent for the Democrats.

"We have lost these elections. Believe me, the responsibility for this falls on one person — on me, Sali Berisha," he said, wiping sweat from his brow.

"I stand in front of you to say that the election result is clear. Of course I accept it and the Democratic Party accepts it."

Albania, once one of the world's most reclusive countries during its communist years, became a NATO member in 2009 and has applied for European Union candidate status. But so far that has been denied over criticism it has not done enough to fight corruption and push through democratic reforms.

Berisha is a divisive figure, praised by supporters as the politician who stabilized post-Communist Albania, but branded by opponents as a populist who tolerated corruption.

Many voters are also frustrated as they try to weather the effects of recessions in nearby Greece and Italy, where many Albanian migrants work to provide remittances back to their impoverished country.

Berisha, a cardiologist, was Albania's first post-communist president from 1992 until 1997, but his reputation was tarnished by the collapse of a pyramid banking schemes that saw many Albanians lose their savings and triggered violence that required an international peacekeeping force to quell.

He came back in 2005, insisting he could run the government with clean hands.

Rama, the winner, gained popularity as mayor of the capital Tirana for more than a decade. He campaigned on an ambitious pledge to earn Albania candidate status within a year to eventually join the EU.

"This victory is ... only the start. That change will not come overnight and easily. All together we should work and sacrifice to make it happen," the 48-year-old Rama said, also addressing his party supporters late Tuesday.

International election monitors said the Balkan country had made significant improvements in the June 23 vote, despite a fatal shooting that occurred on voting day outside a polling station in northern Albania.

Improving the election process was a central condition set by the EU to advance negotiations aimed at the country's eventual membership.

Berisha's remarks eased tension over the country's Central Election Commission which has yet to officially certify the results.

The parties were at odds over the commission's membership ahead of the vote. Three opposition members had pulled out of the body in April in a dispute over Berisha's replacement of a commission member.

But with Berisha conceding, officials among the Socialist Party have said they will almost certainly return to the commission to certify the vote.