By Besar Likmeta
Albanians go to the polls today in a ballot seen as key for the country’s democratic credentials, following a nearly two-year-long political crisis.
Roughly 3,186,569 Albanians will be eligible to cast ballots in 4,865 polling stations spread across the country, to select their new mayors and local councils.
Although administrative in nature, the poll is considered by both local and international observers to be deeply political because it is the first electoral contest since the contested 2009 parliamentary elections.
The electoral campaign has already been marred by almost daily incidents between rival political gangs. The clashes, which range from minor scuffles to exchanges of gunfire between supporters and the bombing of the home of an opposition candidate in Tirana, will have negative effect on voter turnout, experts warn.
Albania’s democracy is facing yet another litmus test from the EU with Sunday’s polls. The bloc will assess its ability to hold free and fair elections that meet international standards, following a violent anti-government rally on January 21 that left four protestors dead and which has been the source of a heated dispute between the opposition and the ruling party since.
The ruling Democrats and the opposition have blamed each other for the riots, adding to the high tension between Edi Rama’s Socialists and Prime Minister Sali Berisha’s Democrats.
“Everyone knows what we risk, because this time around it has been made clear to us, as never before, that the doors to EU integration will be locked – and we don’t know when they will reopen,” former Albanian president Alfred Moisiu said in a recent interview with Balkan Insight.
“It’s clear that opening them as time passes will be more difficult. We don’t only risk entering the EU in due time – we could be left out altogether,” he added.
Tirana is seen by many as the key electoral battleground in Sunday’s poll. The city will see a face-off between the Mayor and Socialist Party head Rama, and a former interior minister, Lulzim Basha, standard-bearer for Prime Minister and Democratic Party leader Berisha.
The polls will be monitored by a mission of 900 local independent observers organised by a local coalition of NGOs as well as nearly 250 short-term observers from the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights.
All the polls that Albania has held since the Stalinist regime of former dictator Enver Hoxha collapsed in 1991 have failed to meet international OSCE election standards, a stumbling block on the country’s road to EU integration.
This article was made possible through the support of the National Endowment for Democracy.