Albania set to vote after acrimonious campaign

Tirana (AFP) –


Albania is facing a parliamentary election on Sunday seen as vital for its ambitions to join the European Union after an acrimonious campaign marred by a deadly gunfight between supporters of rival parties.

Prime Minister Edi Rama is seeking a third term but his socialists are facing a challenge from a dozen parties united behind the main opposition Democratic Party.

And politicians of all stripes face voter apathy in a country where the losers habitually accuse the winners of vote-rigging and campaigns are marked by entrenched personal rivalries.

"At the very least, the parties should put aside their conflicts and work seriously for everyone's best interests, because we are all tired," Arisa Kraja, a 45-year-old teacher, told AFP.

The country of 2.8 million people is among the poorest in Europe and the coronavirus pandemic has made matters worse, with the vital tourism sector suffering a huge slump.

Albania is also two years into a political crisis, with some opposition MPs refusing to take their seats in parliament alleging that the last election in 2017 -- won outright by the socialists -- was rigged.

Opinion polls suggest Rama's socialists have a lead over their rivals, but the last few days "will be decisive" as swing voters make up their minds, said political commentator Lutfi Dervishi.

- Bitter enmity -

All sides claim to be pro-EU -- Albania has been an official candidate country since 2014 -- and promise to complete reforms requested by the bloc, including an overhaul of the judicial system.

Rama, an artist and former basketball player, is banking on a mass vaccination campaign to boost his chances, promising that 500,000 Albanians will be inoculated by the end of June.

He is asking voters for more time to finish infrastructure projects hampered by the pandemic and to rebuild thousands of homes destroyed in a 2019 earthquake.

His opponents are focusing on a plan to revive the economy by supporting small businesses.

Bitter personal enmity between key figures prompted EU envoys to issue a joint statement calling for a campaign "without inflammatory rhetoric or hate speech".

However, Democrat party chief Lulzim Basha and Rama continued to trade barbs throughout the campaign.

While Basha said Rama had cheated in previous elections and had taken control of Albania's institutions and economy, Rama rubbished the claims and said his opponents had no policies and just one rallying cry -- "to wage a final battle against the prime minister".

On the eve of the election, the rivalry between the two parties turned deadly when a row over alleged vote-buying descended into a gunfight in a city near the capital, leaving one Socialist supporter dead and four other people injured.

- 'Moment of truth' -

With such bitterness baked into Albania's politics, officials are attempting to stave off the usual rows over vote-rigging by using an electronic system of voter identification.

"April 25 will be the moment of truth for Albania's political parties," said Vincenzo Del Monaco, envoy in Albania for the OSCE, an international body sending monitors for the vote.

He told AFP the smooth running of the electoral process was a vital measure of "national political maturity".

But many in Albania have run out of patience with their political class and put more faith in new judicial institutions focused on rooting out abuse.

"I'm going to vote but I'm convinced that change in this country will come from the judiciary," said 31-year-old teacher Soni Luka.

She added that judges should "put corrupt politicians and other officials behind bars as soon as possible".

Full results could take days to come out following the end of voting at 1700 GMT Sunday.