Albania’s Berisha pledging free and fair elections

Prime Minister Sali Berisha faces a tough fight Sunday in national elections seen as a key test of the country’s political maturity as it eyes European Union membership.

One of Europe’s poorest countries, Albania joined NATO this year and is to hold its seventh parliamentary election since the fall of communism in 1990. Until now, none has met international standards, the ballots plagued by reports of voter fraud and irregularities.

In the past few weeks, three people have been killed in what local media have said were politically motivated attacks, although whether that is true is unclear.

A regional leader for the small conservative Christian Democratic Party was driving his car when it exploded; a man was fatally shot following an argument over a campaign poster; an opposition lawmaker was shot dead in May.

Both the EU and United States have stressed Albania must do better this time.

“The elections … will be an important test of Albania’s democratic maturity and readiness to move forward toward closer integration with the EU,” the EU said in a statement.

Berisha’s center-right government has been beset by scandal for months, despite being voted back into power four years ago largely on campaign promises of eradicating corruption.

He faces a strong challenge from the current mayor of Tirana and Socialist Party leader, Edi Rama, an artist probably best known outside Albania for his project to paint Tirana’s drab buildings in vibrant — and sometimes clashing — colors.

Polls show the two main political parties — Rama’s Socialists and Berisha’s Democratic Party — to be neck-and-neck.

Berisha, who was the country’s first post-communist president, has campaigned on his recent successes, such as getting Albania into NATO and applying for EU candidate status. He has pledged to turn the country into a small regional energy power with hydroelectric, wind and coal-based production, after recently signing three billion-euro deals on energy production with Italian, Austrian and Norwegian companies.

The government has improved the business environment and has been praised by World Bank reports for its reforms, including the introduction of a 10-percent flat income tax. Health and education workers’ salaries and pensions have doubled and large tracts of Albania’s crumbling road network have been repaired.

Authorities have been racing to complete Albania’s biggest infrastructure project, the 170 kilometer (105 mile) Durres-Kukes-Morini highway linking Albania to neighboring Kosovo, before the election.

But the opposition blames Berisha’s government and the premier himself for a series of scandals, including embezzlement of public funds for the Durres-Kukes highway. They accuse Berisha of using his position for the personal enrichment of himself and his family.

“I don’t want to be a prime minister who exploits the country to serve a corrupt group of people that has kidnapped the government,” Rama said recently.

The two main parties have similar platforms, both pledging to fight poverty and secure between 160,000 and 200,000 new jobs, raise salaries and make health insurance affordable for all.

About 3.1 million people are eligible to vote in a new regional proportional system. A total of 4,300 candidates are running for 140 parliamentary seats.


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