Albania votes with EU accession talks in mind
Albania began voting in a parliamentary election Sunday with Socialist Prime Minister Edi Rama seeking to strengthen his position and lead the Balkan country into talks on European Union accession.
The 52-year-old is calling for a second term to complete sweeping reforms of Albania's notoriously corrupt judicial system that have been demanded by Brussels.
"One thing is certain: the cure to the cancer that took Albania hostage has already begun," the premier told a campaign rally this week.
Opinion polls showed the Socialists slightly ahead of their rivals from the centre-right Democratic Party, whose leader Lulzim Basha is an ardent admirer of US President Donald Trump.
The 43-year-old has accused Rama of links to organised crime and turning the country into a "drugstore", referring to Albania's lucrative but illicit cannabis trade. The premier rejects the accusations.
The Democrats had threatened to boycott the election until a month ago over fears the vote would be unfair, but they struck a deal giving them key ministerial posts in the run-up.
Basha pledges to create a "New Republic", with "a programme focused on the economy and the future of citizens, tax cuts, internships for young people, subsidies for farmers," he explained to AFP.
Many voters came early to cast their ballots on a hot summer's day in the capital Tirana after polling booths opened at 07:00am (0500 GMT).
Valentina Muzeqari, a retired 67-year-old voting in a local school, said she wanted to see "a state of law, of justice... and a better economic situation".
- Calmer campaigning -
Since communism collapsed in the early 1990s, Albanian elections have been marred by fraud, violence, disputed results and bitter rivalries bordering on hatred.
After a 2009 election, the Rama-led Socialist opposition cried fraud and urged supporters onto the streets for months of protests. Three people were shot dead at demonstrations in 2011.
This time "there is an agreement between the political parties... to have a calmer election campaign than we have seen previously," said analyst Ardian Civici.
He believes a possible outcome is a "grand coalition" between the two main forces in the 140-seat parliament -- pointing out that the overriding aim of both sides is to open EU accession talks.
Few campaigning banners or posters have graced the streets in the capital Tirana, where computer sciences student Ardiola Karalli, 23, said the economy would be foremost on her mind in the polling booth.
"Many young people want to leave the country, including me, because we have to find work."
Albania is one of the poorest countries in Europe and its unemployment rate affecting nearly one in three young people has spurred the highest emigration levels in the world.
- More to do -
Unemployed mother Shqipe Berberi, 43, who lives in the city of Kavaje to the west of the capital, said she could not afford to feed her children properly.
"I hope that the new government leader will allow us to live better. Those who have been in power did nothing," she told AFP.
Albania, home to 2.9 million people, became a candidate for EU accession in 2014 and Rama wants to open negotiations by the end of the year, but the road remains long.
In its last report on the country in November, the European Commission said the judicial system remained "slow and inefficient" and marred by corruption.
A "grand coalition" between the two main parties would allow them to oust the Socialist Movement for Integration, the party of President-elect Ilir Meta, who for 10 years has played kingmaker in Albanian politics.
Voting is being monitored by 3,000 election observers, including more than 300 foreigners. Polls close at 1700 GMT, with first results expected during the night.
© 2017 AFP