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Albania: Unusual Calm Prevails Before 24 June Vote

Nearly two and a half million voters in Albania are due to cast their ballots in parliamentary elections on Sunday (24 June). RFE/RL correspondent Jolyon Naegele reports that the campaign has been unusually calm.

Prague, 21 June 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Despite several murders, a marketplace bombing, and a low-intensity war near its border, Sunday's balloting in Albania may mark the country's most peaceful parliamentary election since the collapse of the communist dictatorship of Ramiz Alia a decade ago.

Aldrin Dalipi, a spokesman for the Central Electoral Commission, describes the run-up to this weekend's vote as "the best election campaign we've had yet in Albania."

All 140 seats in parliament are being contested. Voters will directly elect 100 deputies to single-member constituencies from a field of 1,114 candidates. In addition, voters will also elect 40 deputies from 28 nationwide party or coalition lists.

The outcome of the parliamentary elections will set the stage for parliament's election of a president next year.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) is monitoring the campaign and the election with 10 election experts, 18 long-term observers, and some 200 short-term observers. OSCE says its monitors and observers are scrutinizing the performance of election commissions, campaign activities and their coverage in the media, electoral zone boundaries, the accuracy of voter lists, transparency of candidate nominations, and the allocation of parliamentary seats.

The Brussels-based International Crisis Group, or ICG, a private multinational organization, four weeks ago called on the Albanian government to "scrutinize all aspects of the electoral procedures in the ethnic Greek districts of southern Albania, especially Himara," prior to Sunday's elections. The appeal was made in order to ensure fairness and to avoid a repetition of the tensions that resulted from last October's local elections.

ICG says local members of the Greek community in the Himara district on the Ionian coast charged that the local elections were manipulated through widespread ballot-rigging and violence. Albania, in turn, accused Greece of interference by sending several Greek parliamentarians as observers and by referring to the Himara villages as "bastions of Hellenism."

In Sunday's election, the center-right opposition Union for Victory is challenging the ruling Socialist Party of Fatos Nano. The Union for Victory is a coalition of former President Sali Berisha's Democratic Party, the Republican Party, the Movement for Legality, the Democratic Liberal Union, and the National Front.

Also in the running is the center-right New Democratic Party, a coalition formed early this year out of the so-called "Reform Movement" -- a splinter group that left the Democratic Party together with the Democratic Party of the Right and the Movement for Democracy. Berisha's former aide, Genc Pollo, is now the New Democratic Party's political secretary.

Recent polls show the Socialists with a lead of only four percentage points (46 to 42 percent) over Berisha's Democrats.

Nano has promised to continue along the path of close relations with NATO and the EU. But Nano's allegedly domineering tactics have alienated his coalition partners -- the Social Democratic Party, the Human Rights' Protection Party and the Democratic Alliance -- all of which are running separately.

Berisha says he will only recognize the results if the election proves to be free and fair. Analysts say that following a visit to the United States early this year, Berisha has put himself and his campaign into a less aggressive mode. But his election promises still have a familiar ring.

Berisha is in fact campaigning on a platform which, if elected, he would have little chance of implementing. At the Union for Victory's first rally of the campaign four weeks ago, Berisha called for a resolution of violent conflicts in the region through peaceful dialogue and independence for Kosovo. In addition, he demanded the acceleration of highway construction linking the port of Durres with Tirana and linking Albania with Kosovo, Montenegro, and Macedonia. Berisha has also called for the abolition of visas to Macedonia, improved public order, and an end to corruption.

All but the last two demands are largely or entirely in the hands of outside forces over which Albania has relatively little influence.

Ilir Babaramo is a Tirana-based political analyst who writes for "Gazeta Shqiptare." He told RFE/RL's Albanian unit this week that most voters regard the Democrats' campaign promises of less spending and more investment and the Socialists' pledges of integration with the EU as little more than "exaggerations and fantasy":

"In Albania like elsewhere, it's hard to keep campaign promises. Still, the campaign for the 24 June elections has been positive. If we compare it to previous elections, the campaign climate has been relatively calm and there has been no language of hatred. Nor have there been extremist attacks among Albania's political parties."

Babaramo warns, however, that one potentially big problem is that the major parties are sponsoring some 120 candidates on independent lists, in an effort to take advantage of election rules intended to help smaller parties and independents win seats.

"I think that unless the electoral commission comes up with a solution before the day Albanians cast their ballots, we will fall into a political crisis, and the two main political parties will be filing lawsuits against each other. That's because the electoral commission will declare invalid votes for independent candidates."

The OSCE today said, "When so-called independent candidates are known to have clear party affiliations, they simply cannot be independent." The Central Electoral Commission today said it would put a stop to this practice. The OSCE said it welcomed the move.

The army yesterday deployed 350 special commandos and a military police unit to guard key national institutions, including state-supported television and radio, the prosecutor's offices, courthouses, hydropower stations, and other important installations. Radio Tirana says the measure was taken to enable police who normally guard these buildings to protect polling stations. The army's chief of staff, General Pellumb Qazimi, says the troops will be deployed for as long as necessary -- an apparent indication that the Socialist Party leadership is taking no chances of repeating the unrest that plagued previous elections.

Only a small part of the violence of the past month, however, can be directly linked to the elections. A local Democratic Party activist was killed in an ambush in Lushnje (80 km by road south of Tirana) last week (14 June). The Union for Victory coalition accused the police and what it termed "criminal gangs" of the ruling Socialists of engaging in a campaign of violence against the opposition parties and their supporters.

Earlier in the month (9 June), one policeman was killed and three officers were wounded in a shootout with snipers who had been firing at passing vehicles near Lac, 50 km north of Tirana. It was unclear whether there was a political motive for the shootings or if they were merely a legacy of the theft of some 500,000 weapons stolen from army and police arsenals during widespread unrest four years ago. It was that unrest, triggered by the collapse of pyramid investment schemes -- and the subsequent widespread anarchy and suspicions of electoral fraud -- which forced Berisha from office.

On 3 June, armed men shot at the car of a Socialist candidate in the northeastern Tropoja district, Berisha's native area and a Democratic Party stronghold. The attack forced the Socialist candidate to turn back and abandon plans to attend an election rally.

Police in Tirana say two subsequent attempts (on 4 and 5 June) to send police reinforcements to Tropoja also had to be abandoned due to gunfire. No casualties were reported. Special police troops have since been deployed in the area. The Democratic Party has accused the police of attacking its supporters in Tropoja.