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Albania: President Plans Elections Despite Widespread Criticism

Prague, 22 August 1996 (RFE/RL) -- Undeterred by charges that he is becoming increasingly authoritarian, Albanian President Sali Berisha is charging ahead with plans to hold the country's second set of elections this year -- with or without the participation of opposition parties.

He has scheduled local elections throughout the country for October 20, but they are already shrouded in controversy that demonstrates how fragile the roots of democracy are in what was for decades Europe's most isolated Stalinist state.

Last week Berisha issued a decree giving the three leading posts on the permanent Election Commission, which will oversee the local elections, to government appointees.

The opposition Socialists, Social Democrats and Agrarians refused to accept their seats on the commission, objecting to the way the it was formed. They said it should have been established by law, not by Berisha's presidential decree. They also argued that the commission is fully controlled by Berisha's Democratic Party and therefore cannot guarantee free elections.

Servet Pellumbi, deputy leader of the Socialists, argued that the composition of the new election commission is similar to the one that oversaw Albania's disputed parliamentary elections in May.

"We cannot take part in a commission where the balance of power is not 7 to 7 but 10 to 7 in favor of the ruling party," he said.

If the opposition fails to name its candidates to the commission by October 6, the posts will be given away to smaller parties.

The seven opposition parties have also rejected a proposal by the Democratic Party to take part in round-table talks about the local elections. They say the proposed talks are an attempt to deceive the people.

This intense animosity is a fallout from the parliamentary elections held in May and June in which Berisha's Democrats won 122 seat out of 140 in the parliament. The opposition parties charged that the Democrats used intimidation, violence and outright fraud to ensure their victory. The opposition parties pulled out of the first round of voting on May 26 and boycotted the second round on June 2, complaining that the elections were not free, fair or democratic.

Following widespread complaints, the government re-ran the vote in 17 constituencies in mid-June. But the United States, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and the European Parliament all said this was unsatisfactory, and have called for a rerun of the entire election.

The OSCE, which sent observers to the May and June votes, later issued one of its most critical reports ever, saying that the flawed elections were a setback for the development of full democracy and the rule of law in Albania. It said only new elections could "recreate democratic confidence in the region."

Since Berisha came to power in April, 1992, a year after the collapse of communism in the formerly Stalinist state, he has been firmly backed by the United States. But the undemocratic parliamentary elections have severely strained that friendship, and Washington has become one of Berisha's harshest critics.

U.S. State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns rejected Berisha's attempt to wriggle out from under criticism by re-running elections in only 17 districts. He called instead for a completely new parliamentary vote -- something Washington insists on if Albania is to have any claim to democratic credentials.

Criticism from other quarters has been equally scathing. The European Parliament voted in June to suspend co-operation with Albania until what it called "a democracy worthy of the name" is instituted there. Danish Foreign Minister Niels Helveg Peterson, acting on behalf of the OSCE, met Berisha to emphasize that Europe demands new elections.

"Albania must realize that if they want to be part of us, they must play by the rules and the rules are democratic elections," he said.

With his own position now more secure than ever, Berisha is giving no indication that he will bow to such pressure.