Andrew MacDowall in Tirana -
Even by Albanian standards, it was an unseemly election campaign. Even so, the OSCE/ODIHR judged the May 8 local elections "competitive and transparent," giving Albania a big boost in its bid to joint the EU.
Newswires reported ballot counting continued for a second day on Tuesday, May 10, with 29 municipalities completing the process following Sunday's local elections. The coalition led by the main opposition Socialist Party is dominating the races, winning or leading in key municipalities. The Socialist Party has won 18 of them, including Gjirokastra, Saranda, Permet, Himara, Telepela, Gramsh, Burrel and Rreshen. It leads the races for Elbasan, Berat, Vlore, Fier and Korce. The party has also won in some regions long considered bastions of the ruling Democratic Party. The Democats won its traditional regions in the north. In Tirana, the mayoral race is tight; candidates are neck-and-neck with less than 40% of the votes counted.
Though Albanians were voting for mayors and municipal councils, the contest was seen as a litmus test for the direction of national politics and its leading figures. Lining up against one another were two alliances, each dominated by one of Albania's two major parties. The Coalition for the Citizen is led by the ruling Democratic Party of Prime Minister Sali Berisha, the most prominent politician of the post-communist era, while the Coalition for the Future is a vehicle for the Socialist Party, headed by Tirana mayor Edi Rama, who is running for a fourth term in the capital. The campaigning has focused on the capital, both because it is home to almost half the nation's population and due to the nature of the contest. Rama's rival for the mayoralty is Lulzim Basha, a former interior minister and foreign minister and a close associate of Berisha and widely tipped to succeed the PM as head of the Democratic Party.
Rama's Socialist Party was narrowly defeated by Berisha's Democratic Party in the 2009 general election. While that poll was supposed to be a milestone in Albania's democratic development, it was marred by the aftermath. Rama disputed the results, alleged vote-fixing, and the Socialists boycotted parliament for nine months until coaxed back, partly by pressure from the international community, particularly the EU. Even after the party's return, tensions were barely disguised. Indeed, they rose bloodily to the surface in anti-government demonstrations in January that culminated in four protesters being shot by national guards (then under the control of Basha), after cars had been torched and the police attacked. Rama has backed the protests and has become strongly associated with them, despite the disruption they have brought to the city he rules. The protests were originally triggered by allegations of corruption levelled at controversial Economy and Energy Minister Ilir Meta, who was filmed appearing to pressure a colleague to fix a major official tender. Meta has since resigned, but the opposition claim the rot at the core of the Berisha administration remains.
Bile and lies
In the light of the deep political divisions, and the strength of the two relatively evenly-matched political blocs, a high-voltage campaign was always a certainty, but the January deaths appear to have added an extra element of unpleasantness. Groups of rival activists fought, one was beaten with an iron bar, candidates have been stoned, and at least two have been targeted with explosions. The Socialists have alleged that the government has tampered with the electoral roll (as it did in the previous local elections in 2007) and manipulated the media. Most damningly, Deputy Interior Minister Avenir Peka has been accused of attempting to deploy police special forces against opposition supporters, the allegation coming from the force commander himself.
However, following the elections the OSCE/ODIHR issued a statement, saying "the local elections were competitive and transparent, but with high polarization environment and lack of trust between government and opposition parties."
"Unlike the pre-election situation, election day was a generally a quiet day, the voting went relatively well, but procedures were not followed in some cases," it said, noting that a final statement of its findings would in two months.
The campaigning itself was characterised by rash promises. Rama unveiled a plan to create 300,000 jobs that he would be not mandated to deliver in his current position, even if it were in any way realistic. He also promised to address Tirana's weak transportation infrastructure by building a tramway - a pledge echoed by Basha, but rubbished by some experts. In an apparent attempt to boost the Democrats vote, Berisha has unleashed a spectacular programme of financial amnesties. Berisha said that the state will forgive hundreds of euros of unpaid taxes, fines, car import duties and even €270m in outstanding electricity bills in return for small penalty fees. The plans have come under fire from those asking quite how cash-strapped Albania can afford them, as well as those who see them as a naked electoral bribe; in Berisha's defence, it is far from certain how the government would have been able to claw back the money owed in the first place.
But for all this, the election was regarded as an important one. As Albert Rakipi, executive director for the Albanian Institute for International Studies and a prominent political commentator, tells bne, despite the violence and the shady goings on in government, a genuinely free and fair election - arguably Albania's first since 1992 - would be a clear marker that the country has an institutionally functioning European democracy. Rakipi also points out that, as yet, violence has been confined to regional squabbles, rather than being used to influence the outcome of the vote.
A clear result in favour of one party could also give impetus for an early election to break the political deadlock and end the face-off between Socialist local administrations and the Democratic national government that has led to paralysis in regional development and absurdities such as a flyover being built by Rama's Tirana municipality, only to be torn up by the central government.
The Tirana contest is also likely to be a make-or-break moment for Rama and Basha. A victory for the former would confirm public support for his backing and encouragement of the anti-government demonstrators, as well as cementing his position as the Socialist prime ministerial candidate, whereas a defeat, following that of 2009, could see the end of his career. For Basha, breaking the "curse of Rama" would be a huge breakthrough, confirming him as a favourite to replace Berisha and sidelining concerns about his role in the January shootings.
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