Prague, May 15 (RFE/RL) -- The last time Albanians voted in a parliamentary general election, they took a gamble on increased political and economic freedom and overwhelmingly supported the Democratic Party led by Sali Berisha, a privileged cardiologist who treated communist leaders, including longtime dictator Enver Hoxha.
The Democratic Party's sweep of nearly two-thirds of Parliamentary seats in the March, 1992 elections was followed by the early resignation of Hoxha's Communist successor, President Ramiz Alia, and Berisha's election to the presidency. A giddy mood of optimism swept through Albania as the first seedlings of economic rebirth sprouted in a country that for five decades had languished as the poorest, most isolated nation in Europe.
But now as Albanians prepare to go to the polls on May 26 to elect a new parliament, the euphoria has evaporated, replaced by alarm at what many say is the increasingly authoritarian rule of Berisha.
Berisha is campaigning to prevent Albania from falling back into the hands of the Socialist Party -- as has happened in many other East European post-Communist countries. Berisha reviles the Socialists as just a renamed version of the Communist Party that terrified Albanians for more than 45 years.
But critics say that Berisha himself is the real cause for concern. He stands accused -- even by former supporters -- of blatant infringements of human rights. The U. S. State Department recently issued a statement denouncing abuses by the Albanian security services, undue pressure on the judiciary and restrictions on the rights to assembly and free speech.
Correspondents in Tirana say that Berisha's government has kept up steady pressure on opposition newspapers with the help of a press law that many say violates Albania's own constitution. The more influential broadcast media are firmly under Berisha's control, and pump out a steady flow of propaganda on behalf of the Democratic Party.
Also alarming is the fact that some 70 politicians, all but three of them from opposition parties, have been banned from running for office by a government-appointed commission. It was set up to enforce the so-called "genocide law" of September 1995 that prevents former senior Communist officials and collaborators from seeking elected office. Critics say that the law is being applied in a highly selective way to exlude opponents of the Democratic Party.
The Socialist Party charges that -- in the words of a senior member, Gramoz Ruci -- "free and democratic elections have been gravely compromised by the Democratic Party and Berisha."
Speaking last week, he accused the Democratic Party of creating what he called "a climate of terror and manipulation" that hinders the holding of free democratic elections. Ruci said that police had illegally detained and mistreated more than 30 Socialist Party supporters this month, destroyed their banners and removed their party flags.
In another incident last weekend, the Socialist Party said that police cars and supporters of the ruling Democratic Party blocked a major road linking the capital Tirana and the main sea port of Durres. This prevented Socialist leaders from attending an election campaign rally. They also said that police used force to close Socialist campaign centers in Tirana.
Prime Minister Alexander Mesksi denied any wrongdoing by police and accused the Socialists of staging the incidents themselves. But it is clear that the Berisha and the Democrats realize much is at stake in this election.
With the help of Western experts, the Democratic Party is waging a very American-style election campaign featuring short speeches by Berisha and live entertainment by the country's best singers and dancers.
Pjeter Pepa, press spokesman for the Democratic Party, admits that this election is much tougher than the last one, when everybody was against communism. This time, he said, "Earning votes is much more difficult now when the economic reforms have had their bite and voters are more concerned about their economic problems than about politics."