Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama told supporters today that they had delivered his Socialist Party's "most difficult but sweetest" election victory, as almost complete results suggested he had clinched a record third term in office.
The election commission said the Socialists were on course for 74 seats in the 140-seat parliament after Sunday's vote, making Edi Rama the first Albanian leader to win three mandates.
"We broke the record. It was a historic record. Thank you for placing your faith in us to lead you for another four years," Mr Rama told thousands of supporters in central Tirana.
With more than 95% of polling stations accounted for, the main opposition alliance was trailing with 59 seats, said commission chief Ilirjan Celibashi.
The conduct of the election was closely watched by diplomats from the United States and the European Union, with Albania pushing to open membership talks with the bloc.
Although the campaign was filled with bitter insults between candidates and marred by a gunfight of rival supporters, observers said polling day itself and the counting process had gone smoothly.
The EU today praised the organisation of the election and called on all parties to respect the outcome.
Parties regularly dispute the outcome of elections in the Balkan country of 2.8 million people - the last vote in 2017 prompted street protests and some opposition MPs boycotted parliament.
Mr Rama, an artist and former basketball player in power since 2013, continued the spirit of conciliation during his victory rally, calling on opposition parties to work with him to make Albania a "Balkan champion" in tourism.
"I will be the prime minister of all Albanians," he told the crowd, who chanted "victory, victory".
Lulzim Basha, leader of the main opposition Democrat Party, had earlier insisted his alliance won the election and he is yet to concede.
During the campaign, Mr Rama promised to accelerate the rollout of coronavirus vaccines and complete reconstruction from a 2019 earthquake that left thousands homeless.
But the focal point of the campaign was the clash of personalities between Rama, Basha and current President Ilir Meta.
Mr Rama accused his two rivals of having no policies, only an obsession with getting rid of him. They accused him of vote-rigging and corruption.
Mr Meta, whose wife runs a movement allied to the Democrats that performed badly in the election, had promised to quit if the Socialists won in a fair vote.
Today, however, he struck a more neutral tone, urging all parties to show "maturity and composure".
Watchdogs regularly rank Albania as one of the most corrupt countries in Europe, and it is also one of the poorest.
Mr Rama is pushing to transform it into a tourism hub with new airports and better infrastructure, but critics complain of corruption and worry about environmental damage.