Albanians set to vote on Sunday

Albanians vote on Sunday in a tightly contested general election after a violence-marred campaign in the country whose EU membership hopes hinge on its democratic credentials.

The Balkan state, once notorious for secrecy, a gangster culture and corruption, took its first small step towards joining the European Union when it submitted its candidacy for the bloc in April.

In Sunday’s poll, some 3,1 million voters are being asked to elect 140 parliamentary deputies for a four-year mandate, choosing among 4 000 candidates representing 39 parties and coalitions.

But the main battle is between the governing Democratic Party of Prime Minister Sali Berisha, 65, and the opposition Socialist Party of Tirana’s mayor, 44-year-old Edi Rama.

Several opinion polls have put the two rivals neck-and-neck, but give Berisha’s right-wing party a slight advantage.

Analysts estimate that neither the Democrats nor the Socialists will be able to obtain the necessary majority of 71 seats in the parliament.

Former prime minister Ilir Meta, leader of the opposition Movement of Socialist Integration, could play a decisive role with an estimated four percent of the vote.

Albania – a predominantly Muslim nation of 3,6 million that remains one of Europe’s poorest countries – formally applied for membership in the EU in April.

However, its hopes of eventually joining the 27-nation bloc depend on the conduct of its elections.

Brussels expects Albania to meet internationally accepted criteria at elections in order to take the “additional step in the integration process,” Krisztina Nagy, spokesperson for EU enlargement chief Olli Rehn, said.

Such a reminder is all the more pertinent because all elections in Albania have been disputed and sullied by violence since the fall of its isolated communist regime in the early 1990s.

Three people were killed in campaigning for the June 28 vote, with the murder of Socialist deputy Fatmir Xhindi in early May topping the list.

The two others were killed within a week of each other, including a Democratic Party activist and a northern regional leader of the opposition Christian Democratic Party.

Arrests have been made in connection with the last two killings, but Berisha insists the murder of Xhindi, who was shot dead near his house in Roskovec, 120 kilometres south of Tirana, was not politically motivated.

The polls are to be held in accordance with a new electoral law adopted at the request of the European Union and the rest of the international community.

One measure requires all voters to obtain new identity cards that are meant to ease the likelihood of polling day disputes.

Albania’s interior ministry said this week that more than 250 000 voters were still ineligible to cast ballots as they lacked the necessary documents.

About 3 000 monitors – including 500 foreigners – are to observe the voting process.

But despite the measures, political observers still expect the poll result to be strongly contested by the losing side, causing a months-long delay to the formation of a cabinet.

Rama’s Socialists have already condemned what they call irregularities in the voters’ register.

But the Democratic Party has rejected the accusations, with Berisha promising “zero interference” in the vote results as well as “free and fair” elections.

Preliminary official results are expected on Monday.


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