Albania turnout low in vote seen as test of EU hopes

An elderly Albania woman looks at the ballot box before casting her vote at a polling station in Tirana, Albania, 25 June 2017. [Malton Dibra/ EPA]

Albanians struggled to muster enthusiasm for a parliamentary election on Sunday (25 June), despite hopes that an orderly poll could propel the country towards opening European Union accession talks.

The election commission extended the voting period by an hour owing to poor turnout on a day of soaring temperatures, while Socialist Prime Minister Edi Rama took to Twitter and Facebook urging people to “vote, vote, vote”.

While their reliability is questionable, exit polls after voting closed at 8:00pm local time showed Rama taking the lead – in line with pre-election opinion polls – and potentially with an absolute majority in the 140-seat parliament.

Officials said turnout was 45.17% based on data from more than half of polling stations – one of the lowest levels since the fall of communism in the early 1990s. Turnout at the last election in 2013 was over 53%.

Rama, 52, is seeking a second term in office with pledges to boost economic growth and complete sweeping reforms demanded by Brussels of Albania’s notoriously corrupt judicial system.

The rival centre-right Democratic Party, whose leader Lulzim Basha is an ardent admirer of US President Donald Trump, has pledged to create a “New Republic” with economic reforms including tax cuts and farmer subsidies.

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Basha, 43, has accused Rama of having links to organised crime and turning the Balkan state into a “drugstore”, referring to Albania’s lucrative but illicit cannabis trade. The prime minister rejects the accusations.

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After polls closed, Basha expressed optimism about the result and said voters had made a “great sacrifice” given the heat and the celebration of Eid al-Fitr, the end of Ramadan, in the Muslim-majority country.

Election went ‘calmly’

The Democrats had threatened to boycott the election until a month ago, over fears the vote would be unfair. But they struck a deal giving them key ministerial posts in the run-up.

Since the early 1990s, Albanian elections have been marred by fraud, violence, disputed results and bitter rivalries bordering on hatred.

While the rhetoric remained lively, this time there was “an agreement between the political parties… to have a calmer election campaign than we have seen previously”, said analyst Ardian Civici.

After failing to win an outright majority in the 140-seat parliament in 2013, Rama formed a rocky coalition with the Socialist Movement for Integration, the party of President-elect Ilir Meta, who for 10 years has been the kingmaker in Albanian politics.

Meta’s party said in a statement that one of its members was “wounded in Shengjin, 60 kms north of Tirana, in an armed incident outside a polling station”. Police said they were investigating but no one had been taken to hospital.

While parties also traded some accusations of vote-buying and intimidation, the election went “calmly, despite a few incidents”, according to the deputy prime minister, Ledina Mandija, a Democrat.

Some 3,000 observers, including more than 300 foreigners, monitored the polls.

More to do

Albania is one of the poorest countries in Europe and its unemployment rate affecting nearly one in three young people has spurred the highest emigration levels in the world.

While national statistics showed the economy grew 3.46% last year, up from 1.0% in 2013, Albanians said they were yet to feel the benefit.

Unemployed mother Shqipe Berberi, who lives in the western city of Kavaje, said she could not afford to feed her children properly.

“Those who have been in power did nothing,” the 43-year-old told AFP.

Home to 2.9 million people, the state became a candidate for EU accession in 2014 and Rama wants to open negotiations by the end of the year, but the road remains long.

In its last report on Albania in November, the European Commission said the judicial system remained “slow and inefficient” and marred by corruption.

It also warned that criminal gangs behind cannabis cultivation remained at large.

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