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Election officials start counting the votes from the parliamentary elections in Tirana, Albania June 26, 2017. REUTERS/Florion Goga


By Benet Koleka

TIRANA (Reuters) - Albania's ruling Socialist Party is set to win a majority in parliament, a partial vote count showed on Monday, helping them to push economic and judicial reforms needed to join the European Union.

Prime Minister Edi Rama asked voters to give him a mandate in Sunday's vote that would help his party ditch smaller ones and govern alone so as to expedite anti-corruption reforms to the judiciary called for by the EU.

With 4,455 ballot boxes counted out of a total of 5,362, the Socialists had won 48 percent of the vote, which would give them 73 seats in the 140-seat parliament, while the main opposition Democratic Party had won 29 percent, or 43 seats.

"According to all data, we shall be in the driving seat," Rama told party members shortly after polls closed on Sunday.

Klement Zguri, the chief election officer, urged parties to ask counters to speed up the count of the last 907 ballot boxes.

A scuffle between counters in a small seaside town was resolved peacefully, but counting in hot, steamy halls full of cigarette smoke proceeded slowly in the larger regions.

Voter turnout of 44.9 percent was one the lowest rates since Albania ditched communism in the early 1990s, probably due to the heat and the end-of-Ramadan celebration observed by Muslims who account for 60 percent of the population.

Rama and opposition leader Lulzim Basha put off the vote by a week after reaching a deal in May in which the opposition called off a 90-day boycott of parliament in exchange for six cabinet posts including the interior ministry. The move aimed to discourage election fraud and helped defuse tension overall.

Some 400 international observers watched the vote, keen to see Albania shed its history of violent and contested elections.

"The contestants campaigned freely, fundamental freedoms were respected in Albania's elections, but politicised election administration reduced trust in the process," international observers said in a preliminary statement in Tirana.

EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini and Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn said the election was held in a "calm and orderly manner" and urged observers to provide a fuller report on allegations of vote-buying and pressure on voters.

"Once the electoral process has been completed, we will engage with the new government to support the reform process and proceed on the EU integration process," they said in a statement.

"The continuation of justice reform and the fight against drug trafficking and cultivation will be of particular importance in this respect," Mogherini and Hahn added.

Implementing sweeping judicial reform aimed at rooting out widespread graft will be a priority for the next government as it seeks progress towards joining the EU.

Rama said last month Albania could get a green light for formal EU talks to start at the end of this year, but Mogherini and Hahn did not mention the prospect of any such talks.

(Reporting by Benet Koleka and Bardh Krasniqi; editing by Ivana Sekularac/Mark Heinrich)

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