Albanians on Sunday go to the polls to elect 61 new mayors and 1,610 councillors in local elections that are considered a double challenge for the country.
Polling stations opened at 7am and close at 7pm. About 3.37 million Albanians are eligible to cast votes.
Two main coalitions are competing against each other in the elections; the left-wing "Alliance for a European Albaniaa," which is an umbrella for 39 parties, while the right-wing coalition “Popular Alliance for Work and Dignity” includes 15 parties. Four more parties are running outside the main coalition blocs. There are also a few independent candidates.
The left-wing coalition faces a test concerning its 18 months in office, following the landslide victory of Edi Rama's Socialist-led coalition in the 2013 general election.
The opposition coalition is trying to improve on the poor standing it achieved in 2013, focusing on attacking the government rather than addressing local concerns.
The government has taken some flak in public for increasing taxes to pay down the public debt and for using harsh measures to stem electricity theft and collect unpaid utility bills. Last year, human rights organizations complained also about overcrowded prisons.
The government has at the same time funded several major public works projects, renovating city centers in a programme called “Urban Rebirth”. But this has also angered some who consider this expense exorbitant for a poor country.
The elections are also the first that will be carried after the reform of the administrative divisions in the country.
Albania cut the number of local administrative units from 373 to 61 last year, hoping to improve the efficiency of municipal services.
Since the new administrative units will have to carry out the transition from the previous units, some experts fears municipal services will suffer if the process is not carried out effectively.
These elections are also taking place amid an intense debate about the involvement of people with criminal or shady pasts in the political process. The use of strongmen to intimidate voters is not new in Albanian politics, however.
During the last few days, international and local observers have expressed concerns about vote-buying in some municipalities.
The police have opened investigations into claims that an opposition candidate offered money for votes to poor families.
In three cases the prosecution has started investigations into claims that that the electoral roll has been manipulation by means of imported voters. This means candidates adding new voters to their municipalities by importing them from other municipalities.
Although 3.37 million Albanians have the right to vote, an estimated one third of them have left the country, seeking a better life. In 2013, about 1.7 million Albanians voted in the general elections with the turnout reaching 53 per cent.