Albanians have begun voting in elections that will play a crucial role in its bid to join the EU. Polls suggest a tight race, while a short-staffed electoral commission has raised the likelihood of a disputed result.
Since the collapse of the communist regime of Enver Hoxha in 1990, allegations of violence and vote fixing have marred subsequent polls in Albania, one of Europe’s poorest countries. Since 1991, it has never held an election deemed “free and fair,” and Western diplomats have said there are signs this time around of a campaign to coerce voters.
Albania has applied to join the EU but so far has not yet been made an official candidate for membership. Brussels says Sunday’s elections “represents a crucial test for the country’s democratic institutions and its progress towards the European Union.”
While opinion polls in the country are unreliable, they point to a tight race between conservative Prime Minister Sali Berisha, who is bidding for a third consecutive four-year term, and the opposition Socialist Party of Edi Rama, a former mayor of the capital Tirana. Others say Rama will receive a narrow victory.
Rama, a painter eduated in Paris, has alleged attempts by the ruling party to buy votes. “I strongly hope that people’s will would not be manipulated…but these elections are not like ones that a NATO or EU member country should have,” he said.
Berisha, a cardiologist who is campaigning on a promise of a six percent hike in wages and pensions, has dismissed the claims as an “opposition’s attempt to justify in advance its next electoral defeat.”
Rama lost the last election in 2009, which descended into a political crisis. Four people were shot dead by security forces during protests.
Threat of disputed result
The vote is already being overshadowed by political row within Albania’s central electoral commission, which some analysts say will raise the likelihood of a disputed result. It is unable to certify the vote, because replacements have not been made for three of the agency’s seven members who quit in April in a dispute with Berisha’s ruling coalition and Rama’s opposition.
A court will be tasked with certifying the vote in instead.
3.2 million voters are eligible, and some half a million Albanian workers in neighboring Greece have returned home to cast their ballots, which will choose lawmakers for the country’s 140-seat assembly.
Around 600 international observers will monitor the polls.
jr/av (AFP, Reuters)