Albania's Socialist-led opposition alliance was on course for a big victory in the weekend's parliamentary election, bringing an end to the eight-year reign of Prime Minister Sali Berisha's Democrat-led alliance of rightist parties.
While this was probably Albania's freest election since the end of communist rule over two decades ago, international observers said the election had been marred by an atmosphere of political mistrust, as well as incidences of violence. This assessment is unlikely to do much for Albania in its stalled bid to join the EU, which had highlighted the importance of this election, but a smooth handover of power could convince Brussels otherwise.
Socialist leader Edi Rama on Monday, June 24 called for Berisha to resign after a projection by the High Electoral Commission, the poll's official supervisor, with about 25% of the vote counted showed his left-of-centre coalition would capture 84 seats in the 140-member parliament. The other 56 seats would go to Berisha's Democratic Party and its coalition partners, the commission said. The final results of the election were not expected to be announced before Tuesday, June 25, observers said. Turnout was a high 53.5%, the electoral commission said, boosted by the return of tens of thousands of Albanians working in Greece and Italy over the past two years.
"There always comes a time to lose, and today is the time to do it for the honour of Albania," he said, Reuters reported. "Albania must emerge from these elections holding its head up high... This is the moment in politics when the losers can take part in the victory of their country."
However, there was little sign that Berisha, who has dominated the political scene as prime minister and president since 1991, intends to go quietly. His party also declared victory within minutes of polls closing on Sunday, June 23, and have since stuck to their guns. "We continue to have full confidence we shall be the winners when all the votes of the citizens have been counted," Democrat lawmaker Gerti Bogdani was quoted by Reuters as saying.
The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe's office for democratic institutions and human rights, which sent 380 observers to join about 900 local and international observers, said in a statement that Sunday's vote went "relatively well, albeit with some procedural irregularities", but criticised the slow counting of votes because of delays in appointing counting officials. The election was "substantive" and offered real choice, it said, but the atmosphere of mistrust between the Socialists and Democrats had "tainted the electoral environment and challenged the administration of the entire electoral process."
The run-up to the elections was marred by a fight over the composition of the Central Election Commission, while on the day the most serious incidence was a shooting in the northwestern Lac region, in which an opposition activist was killed and a Democrat candidate wounded.
If Rama, a towering former basketball player, takes power, he has promised to do for the corrupt and rusting country what he did for the capital Tirana when he was mayor, which was to revitalise the local economy and spruce up the environment. He says he will reboot Albania's EU bid, which would be helped by a good report from the OSCE, and make the country more business friendly by easing the burden on small businesses while also introducing a progressive tax rate.
Corruption, though, remains the thorniest problem. Albania ranks down at 113th place on Transparency's International's most recent corruption survey. According to The Economist, in an interview Rama said the problem with Albania is that the whole system had been corrupted during Berisha's eight years in power. "If you put Albanian civil servants in Germany they will not be corrupt because there is no space for it," he said, "but if you put bring Germans here, after a few months they would be. It is not about people but the system."
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