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Albania: Both Sides Claim Election Victory

Both of Albania's leading parties claimed victory today in yesterday's parliamentary elections. RFE/RL correspondent Jolyon Naegele reports that despite sporadic violence, the elections were conducted in a relatively peaceful manner.

Prague, 25 June 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Albanian Prime Minister Ilir Meta today declared victory for his Socialist Party in yesterday's parliamentary elections. But Meta's declaration came hours after leaders from the rival Democratic Party had announced their election win.

The Central Election Commission is due to release initial results later today. But despite confusion over the outcome of the elections, election observers are saying they are generally satisfied with the way in which it was conducted.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which had nearly 300 election observers and monitors in Albania, says the elections "marked progress towards meeting international standards for democratic elections."

Jerzy Smorawinski, the chairman of the Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly delegation, said: "The Central Election Commission's professional and transparent conduct contributed significantly to the progress noted in these elections. Their distance from political party disputes was courageous."

The OSCE also says the campaign took place in a generally peaceful atmosphere. The most contentious issue, it adds, was the attempt to have party members run as independent candidates in a bid to increase the number of compensatory mandates allocated to parties. The OSCE says other shortcomings included inaccuracies in the voter lists, and excessive deviations in the number of voters registered in some electoral constituencies.

Premto Goga is the head of a non-governmental Albanian human rights organization that also monitored the balloting. Goga gave the election good marks overall, although he too had reservations: "If we speak about the whole election process, it was good. There were, however, some small incidents in which pressure was exerted, including irregularities in voting lists." But despite observers' satisfaction with the vote, the two main party rivals remained at odds over the procedure and the outcome.

About 60 percent of the country's nearly two and a half million eligible voters turned out at yesterday's ballot. The Socialist Party's organizational secretary, Gramoz Ruci, says the Socialists won 45 out of 100 directly elected parliamentary seats.

Ruci says he is also confident the party will win the July 8 run-offs in all but two of the 37 districts where no candidate won a majority of votes.

Shpetim Rroqi, a leading activist in former president Sali Berisha's opposition Democratic Party, says the Democrats won 34 seats, although other estimates put the Democratic victory at somewhere between 17 and 20 seats. The Socialists' Ruci predicts his incumbent party will be able to form a one-party government. In his words, "there are no winners and losers in these elections. Albania won, democracy won. Albania's integration into the EU won."

But despite the lofty words, Ruci accused the Democrats of being poor losers:

"Our political opponents are ready only to claim victory, but not to lose. So we appeal to them that the real man is the one who is willing to accept his defeat rather than claim victory." For his part, Berisha insists the Democrats won the first round of elections. He told a crowd of supporters last night: "the constituencies won by our opponents can be counted on the fingers of one hand."

Berisha accused the Socialist-led government of using police to close some polling stations early and of meddling with the vote in areas inhabited by the Greek minority. As expected, he is considering rejecting the outcome. Prime Minister Meta says Berisha should accept the results and resign.

An additional 40 seats in parliament are allocated on a proportional basis in an attempt to enable smaller parties that win at least 2.5 percent of the vote to enter parliament.

Prime Minister Meta called yesterday's elections "calm and democratic" and "the best elections the country ever had." This was in marked contrast to the widespread violence that accompanied the last parliamentary elections, held four years ago as Albania was undergoing an anarchic upheaval following the collapse of several pyramid schemes. That turmoil led to the downfall of then-president Berisha.

Procedural disputes between the Democrats and Socialists kept polling stations closed in one constituency -- Lushnje, some 80 kilometers by road south of Tirana -- and at several other locations, forcing balloting to be rescheduled for some 30,000 voters.

The Democratic Party candidate for the port city of Durres, Mero Baze, a well-known political commentator and close adviser to Berisha, announced he had withdrawn his candidacy shortly before polls closed last night, citing violations of electoral procedure:

"We decided to withdraw half an hour before the polls closed due to numerous manipulations of the vote, including stolen ballots and because political representatives were being prevented from participating in the work of the electoral commission."

The election was also marked by sporadic acts of violence. In Tirana, Gjergj Bushgjoka, a member of the Union for Victory -- the umbrella group of which the Democratic Party is the largest member -- was shot in the leg, while a bullet grazed the head of a second group member. Bushgjoka says one of his assailants was a bodyguard for the Socialist Party and that the shooting started after he tried to stop attackers from beating a voter.

Albanian election monitor Goga describes what happened:

"Some guy who they say was a bodyguard went [into a polling station] and asked for the member of the Electoral Commission and a Democratic Party monitor and asked them to leave the commission. There was a conflict between them and the 'bodyguard' fired his gun at both men."

Police say that in a separate incident, gunmen broke into a polling station in the village of Ukebibaj in the northern Tropoja district, setting fire to all the ballots, ballot boxes, and lists of voters.

Reports continue to come in of incidents in other parts of the country.