TIRANA Albanian Prime Minister Sali Berisha conceded defeat on Wednesday after losing a parliamentary election at the weekend, ending three days of public silence and soothing fears of a messy handover of power in the volatile NATO country.
The concession speech to supporters in downtown Tirana clears the way for the capital's former mayor and leader of the opposition Socialist Party, Edi Rama, to take power after a landslide victory on Sunday.
Berisha waited until almost the very last ballot paper was counted to appear in public, raising concern in the West that he might dispute the result.
His concession will be taken as a suggestion of growing democratic maturity in the Adriatic nation, which has been rocked by repeated bouts of political unrest since the fall of communist rule in 1991. A smooth handover would help revive Albania's stalled bid to join the European Union.
"Accepting the result of the elections, I wish the opponent good luck," Berisha said at his party headquarters.
"We lost this election and all responsibility for the loss falls only on one person, me," he said, to cries of "No, no!" from the party faithful.
Supporters of 48-year-old Rama drove through central Tirana, honking horns and waving the flags of his Socialist Party.
With votes counted from 99 percent of polling stations, the opposition alliance was poised to take 84 of parliament's 140 seats, well ahead of Berisha's Democrats on 56.
"NOT A FAREWELL"
Albania's dominant political figure since the end of more than four decades of Stalinist rule in 1991, Berisha was credited with taking Albania into NATO in 2009 and onto the first rung of EU membership. But his opponents accuse him of undermining democracy and allowing graft and organised crime to flourish.
The country's EU membership bid has been on ice since it applied to become an official candidate four years ago, due to concern in the 27-nation bloc over democracy, crime and corruption.
Rama, who won international acclaim during a decade as Tirana mayor for revitalising the drab capital, says he will reboot the EU bid and transplant his success in the city to the rest of the rundown country of 2.8 million people.
The U.S. embassy in Tirana called for the results to be quickly certified, mindful that the Central Election Commission is currently without enough members to confirm the vote, due to a political row before the election. A court may have to certify the result instead.
The European Commission urged Albania's rival parties to work together.
"Now, more than ever, cross-party cooperation is needed to ensure a smooth transition to the incoming government," said a spokesman for EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fuele.
"Prime Minister Berisha's announcement is an important step towards this goal. There are many challenges ahead which will demand immediate attention."
Berisha announced his resignation from the Democratic Party but said he would remain a lawmaker. "This is not a farewell speech," he said.
Analysts said there was little sign of a quiet retirement.
"I don't think there is any hope in the West after this that he will really quit politics," said analyst Shpetim Nazarko. "He will just stay there and pull the strings from the backstage for the next few years."
(Writing by Matt Robinson; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)