Tensions high as Albania votes in disputed local poll

TIRANA: Albanians cast ballots on Sunday in tense municipal elections that have become the flashpoint of a democratic crisis, with the opposition boycotting the vote and refusing to recognise its results.
The Balkan state has been roiled by political turmoil since February, when opposition politicians resigned from parliament to launch street protests against Socialist Prime Minister Edi Rama.
They accuse him of crime links and manipulating elections, which he denies.
Citing the unrest, Albania’s President Ilir Meta announced a postponement of the municipal poll earlier this month.
But Prime Minister Rama and election authorities have decided to forge ahead with the voting regardless.
On Sunday, groups of several dozen opposition supporters protested outside some polling stations in the capital of Tirana, shouting “Don’t vote!” and “Rama, go!”.
“No one can stop me from voting,” Arjan Celi, a 45-year-old engineer, said after passing the protesters to mark his ballot, saying it was his democratic duty.
But Entela Mushi, an economist among the crowd of protesters, vowed: “These elections will not be recognised and our resistance will be strong.”
On the eve of the polls, right-wing opposition leader Luzlim Basha urged his supporters to boycott the election and hold “non-violent demonstrations everywhere.”
They are under heavy pressure from Western powers to remain peaceful, with the European countries and the US issuing stern warnings against violence or obstruction of voting.
The Organization for Security and Co-operating in Europe (OSCE), whose observers are monitoring the poll, also urged the “utmost restraint”.
“Any attempt to derail the democratic process through violent action stalls the progress of Albania and stains the country’s international reputation,” it said in a statement.
In the past two weeks, opposition supporters have attacked polling stations in several parts of the country in an effort to destroy election materials, setting fire to two schools in the process. Their weekly anti-Rama protests have also at times boiled over into violent clashes with police.
The political turbulence is brewing at a sensitive moment for Albania, which is waiting for EU member states to decide on its application to open accession talks.
The bloc was initially supposed to make a decision in June, but has now postponed it until October.
Sunday’s vote is a “test of Albania’s democratic maturity,” said political analyst Aleksander Cipa.
“Any act of violence would be harmful to Albania’s image, its democracy and its political class,” he added.
The aftermath of the election is likely to be messy, with the opposition refusing to accept the results.
Lutfi Dervishi, a media expert at the Media Institute in Tirana, believes “the political crisis has not yet reached its peak”.
To further complicate matters, the country’s top arbiter — the Constitutional Court — is currently out of commission due to a judicial reform process that has seen all but one judge resign or removed from the bench amid a corruption probe.
The voting for mayors and local councils is set to take place in 61 municipalities in the country of around 2.8 million, with polls open from 0500 GMT until 1700 GMT.
Opposition mayors control slightly under half of the municipalities.
In 31 districts, there is only one Socialist candidate running while the rest have a contest with independent candidates or those from smaller parties.
Since the fall of a communist dictatorship in 1991, Albania’s efforts at democracy have been hampered by extreme partisanship and frequent accusations of corruption and vote buying. — AFP