- Title: ALBANIA: Albanians head to polls in closely-watched general elections
- Date: 26th June 2009
- Summary: TIRANA, ALBANIA (RECENT) (REUTERS) TIRANA CITY
- Embargoed: 11th July 2009 13:00
- Location: Albania
- Country: Albania
- Topics: Domestic Politics
- Reuters ID: LVA7TG5ZRIK2DCE4HBSBKOGH0J2M
- Story Text: Albanians go to the polls on Sunday in an election which will be closely watched to make sure it meets international standards. Albania must prove it can hold free and fair elections if it wants to join the European Union.
Albania hopes to hold free and fair elections on Sunday (June 28), which is a precondition for the post-communist country to join the European Union (EU), after previous elections failed to meet international standards.
Albania recently joined NATO and has also applied to the EU for candidate status. The bloc has told the Balkan country that this parliamentary election is a crucial test of Albania's readiness to integrate with the EU.
The United States said on Wednesday (June 24) that Albania's weekend election must be free and fair and warned that a repeat of past fraudulent practices could harm the country's prospects on the world stage. Washington, which backed Albania's NATO entry that took place in April, wants Sunday's parliamentary election to improve Albania's democratic credentials and set it on a quicker pace of integration into the European Union.
Since 1996, monitors have said Albanian elections have not met international standards despite some progress.
Both the ruling Democratic Party (DP) and the main opposition Socialist Party (SP) have pledged to take the country into the EU, promising more jobs and economic growth, while accusing each other of corruption.
Current prime minister and leader of the DP, Sali Berisha, said his government will do all it can to make sure the elections are peaceful and legal in the country of 3.3 million people.
"In my view, this would be international standard elections and fully free and fair as what is in the hands of the government. The government will do its best," said Berisha.
But the head of the Socialist Party and the mayor of Tirana, Edi Rama, does not believe government claims it will organise fair elections.
"If one refers to the OSCE/ODIHR reports Albania has had kind of free and fair (elections), but if one refers to the standards of the European Union, Albania has never had (elections) as free and as fair as is the norm in European Union. The big hope was to have it this time but it does not look like it," Rama said.
Last week an official of the Christian Democratic Party, a former ally turned opponent of the ruling Democratic Party, was killed after his car was blown up. A ruling party supporter was gunned down two weeks ago in a row over election posters.
About 400 foreign election monitors coordinated by an agency of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), a pan-European rights watchdog, will fan out across Albania to watch the vote.
And the Central Election Committee says it has new technology that will offer greater transparency than every before. It is installing cameras which will run in each of the polling stations throughout the voting process.
"This has happened for the first time and we believe that this helps the transparency for all systems," said spokesman Leonard Olli.
"At the moment that people know what's happened in every counting centre, at the moment everyone can listen directly to what's happened and to what the results are, so we believe that this is the maximum of transparency that we can offer. This, I can say, is the first time this system has been used here in Albania, but before we asked a lot, to know what was happening around the world. We can state that we were the first country and the only country up until now that uses the camera system to monitor the votes," he added.
Albania has enjoyed robust growth in recent years, falling below five percent growth just once in the last decade.
Yet it is coming under pressure as it exports fall. Albanians living abroad send less money back home and other world economic issues impact the Adriatic country.
Berisha says Albania's economy is still growing at more than four percent. Yet economists and ordinary Albanians interviewed this month say years of economic growth seem to be coming to a halt.
The government has been ploughing money into building roads to help pep up the economy, and high public works costs could push the new government to seek help from the International Monetary Fund, as Serbia and Bosnia have done in recent months.
The IMF forecasts only 0.4 to 0.5 percent growth in 2009, a big slowdown from 2008 growth the IMF estimated at 6.8 percent.
But despite ordinary workers and businesses feeling the economic pinch, Berisha said the country is "still definitely not in deep crisis."
"No, I am sure of that. It is an economy of sweat, work and hard work," he said.
Rama says the fact that Albania is not fully integrated in the international financial system is now an asset, but there are still problems ahead..
"Our weakness became our strength, but at the same time we are very much dependent on the remittances of the emigrants who live in Italy, Greece, Germany, America and this, of course, has an impact. And on the other hand there is a lot to worry because of difficulties of many enterprises that are working with the outside world," he said.
The world financial crisis has also hit the value of Albania's currency, the lek, bringing it down by around five percent in recent months against the euro after a long period of stability.
On the streets of Tirana, one resident said he intended to vote for the party he has always supported - the Socialists.
"I will vote and others should vote as they like. I did not change my political preferences so I vote as I always did," said Fejzo Dabolla.
In Himara, voter Erion Kondi said he doesn't want to see political change.
"If this government remains it is better for me. Better not to change because changes always bring new officials hungry to fill their pockets with money," he said.
The Democrats led the Socialist Party by two points 10 days before the vote, but coalitions backing each party received the same support, a poll by Zogby International showed last week.
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