Albania under scrutiny as voters head to polls

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Albania's prime minister for the past eight years, Sali Berisha faces the fight of his political life on Sunday (23 June) when the NATO member state holds an election watched closely by the West less for the result than the conduct.

Concern is high that the impoverished Balkan country will again fail to deliver a first free and fair vote in more than two decades since the fall of communism, further stalling its progress towards membership of the European Union and potentially spelling trouble on the streets.

A political dispute has left Albania's top electoral body, the Central Election Commission (CEC), short-staffed, meaning it will be unable to certify the result. Western diplomats are warning of voter coercion.

The last election, in 2009, triggered opposition protests in which four people were shot dead by security forces.

A Western diplomat compared elections in the Adriatic coastal state to a Quentin Tarantino movie, in which a bunch of people point guns at each other.

"Even if half of what we're hearing is true, that indicates to me a fairly extensive campaign to coerce people to vote in a certain way," the envoy said, on condition of anonymity. "That is, of course, troubling."

Berisha, a fiery former cardiologist, has dominated Albanian political life since the collapse of the Stalinist regime in 1991. At 68, defeat on Sunday could spell the end of his career.

Opinion polls are unreliable, but point to a narrow victory for the opposition Socialist Party of former Tirana mayor Edi Rama, 48, who has been buoyed by an alliance with a small leftist party previously in coalition with Berisha.

The Socialists and Berisha's Democratic Party differ little on Albania's strategic goal of joining the EU or its staunchly pro-Western policy.

But their confrontational relationship does not sit easy with Brussels or Albania's NATO allies, notably Washington.

Rama pulled the opposition's three representatives from the seven-member CEC in April after the coalition government sacked a member whose party, the leftists, had allied with Rama's Socialists for the election.

Test for EU membership

The EU warned this week that the election was a "crucial test" of Albania's democratic institutions. Albania applied four years ago to become an EU member but has not yet been made an official candidate for membership.

The next government will take on an economy feeling the effects of the crisis in the eurozone, particularly neighbouring Greece and Italy where some 1 million Albanian migrants work to send money home.

While Albania avoided recession, remittances are down and the World Bank and International Monetary Fund have voiced concern at public debt of 62.9% of output and a budget shortfall that was up 40% in the first quarter from the same period last year.

It could yet be months, however, before a new government takes office, with challenges to the election result almost certain. A system by which party rank-and-file count the ballots has repeatedly led to disputes and delays.

Positions

EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton and Enlargement Commissioner Štefan Füle said in a joint statement on 17 June:

"The parliamentary elections in Albania on 23 June represent a crucial test for the country's democratic institutions and its progress towards the European Union.

“We continue to monitor closely the preparations of the elections stressing the need to hold them in line with international and European standards and encourage adequate follow up to the findings of the Interim Report of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights Electoral Observation Mission. In this context, it is also key that the political leaders find a way, acceptable to all, to make the Central Electoral Commission fully operational.

“We recall that it is the joint responsibility of all Albanian political leaders and parties to reinforce the confidence and trust of the public in the electoral process and create conditions for election results to be accepted by all."

Background

Every Albanian election since the fall of communism in the early 1990s has been marred by accusations of fraud, but the last parliamentary and mayoral elections left the country in political paralysis.

National elections, held on 28 June 2009, saw Albania's dominant post-communist politician Sali Berisha clinch a second four-year term as prime minister. The opposition Socialists refused to accept the results and accused his government of corruption and vote fraud.

Berisha has been at the centre of Albania's political life for the last 23 years, having served as president from 1992 to 1997, and as prime minister since 2005.

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