Following days of silence, Albanian Prime Minister Sali Berisha put growing worries of the potential for violence to bed as he finally accepted the inevitable late on June 26, conceding that his alliance of rightist parties suffered a huge defeat in the recent parliamentary elections.
Under pressure from the EU to respect the result, Berisha appeared in public for the first time since the June 23 poll to try to put some gloss on a humbling defeat. The vote saw the long-time PM's challenger - former Tirana mayor Edi Rama and Socialist Party-led coalition - win 84 of the 140 seats in parliament. The rightist alliance, headed by Berisha's Democratic Party, managed just 56.
"We lost this election and all responsibility for the loss falls only on one person, me," Berisha told supporters. "These have been the most free and fair elections Albania has ever held and I congratulate my opponent on his victory."
Rama's party will be the biggest bloc in the parliament with 67 seats; another 15 went to the Socialist Movement for Integration under former premier Ilir Meta. Two small groups, the Human Rights Party - representing the country's ethnic Greek minority - and the Christian Democratic Party, each won a single seat.
Berisha's failure to publicly acknowledge the victory of his bitter rival, and end of his own long-term reign, had raised concern that things could turn nasty, as they have in the past. "We continue to calmly wait for our opponent to accept defeat," Rama told supporters late on June 25, as crowds chanted, "victory, victory."
This was probably Albania's freest election since the end of communist rule over two decades ago, and the EU had stressed the conduct of it was crucial to the country's hopes of joining the bloc. However, there were fears that Berisha - who has dominated Albania's political scene since the end of communism in 1991 and was gunning for a third term in power - and his supporters would struggle to accept defeat. That raised fears of a repeat of the violence that stalked the previous election in 2009, which led to years of bitter rivalry between the PM and opposition leader Rama, resulting in political paralysis.
Reflecting that bad blood, international observers said the election, while mostly free, was marred by an atmosphere of political mistrust, as well as incidences of violence. The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe's (OSCE), which sent 380 observers to join about 900 local and international peers, said in a statement that the vote went "relatively well, albeit with some procedural irregularities."
However, the slow counting process - due to delays in appointing officials - was criticised. The election was "substantive" and offered real choice, the OSCE noted, but the atmosphere of mistrust between the Socialists and Democrats had "tainted the electoral environment and challenged the administration of the entire electoral process."
A fight over the composition of the Central Election Commission also marred the run-up to the vote, while the most serious incident came the day of the poll itself, as an opposition activist was killed and a Democrat candidate wounded in a shoot out in the northwestern Lac region.
Rama, a towering former basketball player and modern artist, 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 on the election from the OSCE - and make the country more business friendly by easing the burden on SMEs and introducing a progressive tax system.
Corruption, though, remains the thorniest problem. Albania ranks 113th on Transparency's International's most recent survey. According to The Economist, in a recent interview Rama claimed the problem is that the whole system has 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 bring Germans here, after a few months they would be. It is not about people but the system."
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