Albania holds local elections amid political turmoil

Voters cast their ballot at a polling station in Kamez town, central Albania on Sunday, June 30, 2019. Albanians have started to cast ballots to elect mayors and city councils, or parliaments amid a tense political conflict with the opposition boycotting the municipal elections. (AP Photo/Visar Kryeziu)
Albanian prime minister Edi Rama casts his ballot at a polling station in Tirana, Sunday, June 30, 2019. Albanians began to cast ballots on Sunday to elect mayors and city councils, or parliaments, amid a tense political conflict with the opposition boycotting the municipal elections. (AP Photo/Hektor Pustina)
A woman casts her ballot at a polling station in Kamez town, central Albania on Sunday, June 30, 2019. Albanians have started to cast ballots to elect mayors and city councils, or parliaments amid a tense political conflict with the opposition boycotting the municipal elections. (AP Photo/Visar Kryeziu)
Police guard outside a polling station in Bathore, near the Albanian capital of Tirana, Sunday, June 30, 2019. Albanians have started to cast ballots to elect mayors and city councils, or parliaments amid a tense political conflict with the opposition boycotting the municipal elections. (AP Photo/Visar Kryeziu)
A man casts his ballot at a polling station in Kamez town, central Albania on Sunday, June 30, 2019. Albanians have started to cast ballots to elect mayors and city councils, or parliaments amid a tense political conflict with the opposition boycotting the municipal elections. (AP Photo/Visar Kryeziu)
Supporters of main opposition Democratic Party protest outside a polling station in Tirana, Sunday, June 30, 2019. Albanians cast ballots on Sunday to elect mayors and city councils, or parliaments, amid a tense political conflict with the opposition boycotting the municipal elections. (AP Photo/Visar Kryeziu)
Albanian prime minister Edi Rama thanks his supporters during the last election rally in Vlora, southern Albania, Friday, June 28, 2019. Abania's municipal elections don't normally provoke much interest beyond the country's border, but the holding of this weekend's vote — or failure to do so — appears decisive for the tiny Western Balkan country in its bid to start full membership negotiations with the European Union. (AP Photo/Visar Kryeziu)

TIRANA, Albania — Albanians were casting ballots on Sunday to elect mayors and city councils, or parliaments, amid a tense political conflict with the opposition boycotting the municipal elections.

While the Socialist-run government is insisting on holding the election, the opposition wants to stop it taking place. The opposition, led by the center-right Democratic Party, blames a corrupt government linked to organized crime and is demanding fresh national elections.

Albania's President Ilir Meta is sympathetic to the opposition and declared that the vote is canceled, but the government under Prime Minister Edi Rama has refused to abide by that decision.

Votes will be cast to pick authorities that will run 61 districts across the country for the next four years.

On late Saturday the Democratic Party's leader Lulzim Basha called on Albanians to boycott the vote and said they would hold non-violent protests. Police have said protests are not allowed the voting day.

Rama cast his ballot in Surrel, a village near Tirana where he lives.

"This day confirms that no one can play with the people ... and who dares take sovereignty from the people finds no other end but a failing and a shameful one," he told journalists.

The opposition has been holding anti-government protests since mid-February when they also relinquished their seats in parliament. They say the political crisis will be resolved when Rama resigns and vote-riggers are jailed.

Small groups of opposition supporters in Tirana and a nearby town rallied in front of some polling stations, shouting "Rama go!"

The ruling Socialists are the only candidates in 35 out of 61 districts, with some smaller leftist and center-right parties running against them in the rest.

Thousands of police officers guarded the polling stations Sunday. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights said it was sending 174 election observers, who will give their preliminary findings on Monday.

Audrey Glover, head of the international monitoring mission, found the situation at a Tirana polling station "not conducive to observing."

Holding a free and fair election is considered key for the launch of EU membership talks for the tiny Western Balkan country, already a NATO member.

Voting ends 1700 GMT. Preliminary election results are not expected until Monday.

The Central Election Commission, the institution running the election, said turnout at 11 a.m. (0900 GMT) was about 12%.

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Follow Llazar Semini on Twitter: https://twitter.com/lsemini

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