Albania parties at loggerheads after hard-fought election
Albania’s opposition claimed victory after a parliamentary election on April 25 seen as crucial to the country’s dreams of EU membership, but the ruling party said it was too soon to call a result.
The electoral commission said it could take two days to know the results of a vote marred by weeks of sniping between the candidates in the run-up and a deadly gunfight between rival supporters.
Despite the fractious campaign, international observers including ambassadors from European countries and the United States reported that the voting day itself passed off without major hitches.
Socialist Prime Minister Edi Rama was seeking a third term against a dozen parties united behind the main opposition Democrats, led by his long-time rival Lulzim Basha.
Shortly after polling stations closed, Basha thanked his voters and said victory for his alliance was "clear".
However, exit polls in local media suggested contradictory results.
Rama dismissed any claims at this stage as "pre-match predictions", urging his supporters to have faith in the vote count.
Election commission chief Ilirjan Celibashi had pleaded with politicians to wait calmly for the count to be completed, praising the "integrity" of the voting process so far.
But many voters are jaded with a political culture where each side routinely accuses the other of cheating and corruption.
"Democracy is good, I don’t blame democracy, but I do blame the political class - it fights only for itself, never for us," Kosta Ranxha, an 80-year-old retiree, told AFP.
The country of 2.8 million people is among the poorest in Europe and the coronavirus pandemic has made matters worse, with the vital tourism sector suffering a huge slump.
Rama, an artist and former basketball player, banked on a mass vaccination campaign to boost his popularity and has promised that 500,000 Albanians will be inoculated by the end of May.
He has also vowed to increase tourism and repair damage from a 2019 quake that left thousands without homes.
Democrat leader Basha has promised to speed up the push for EU membership and revive the economy with help for small businesses.
The two men traded barbs throughout the campaign, with Basha accusing his rival of vote-rigging and corruption and Rama belittling his opponent as a puppet of party veterans and President Ilir Meta.
In the run-up to the vote, the president, an arch-enemy of Rama whose wife runs a smaller party allied to the Democrats, said "pitchforks" would be ready on April 25 in case the Socialists attempted to tamper with the votes.
U.S. envoy Yuri Kim called the comments unacceptable, writing on Twitter: "These threats deserve condemnation."
Kim was among several Western diplomats monitoring the electoral process, stressing that the U.S. did not support any party and asking all candidates "to accept the judgement of voters when the count is finalised".
The rivalry between the two parties turned deadly in the final week of the campaign when a row over alleged vote-buying descended into a gunfight in a city near the capital.
One Socialist supporter was killed and four other people injured, prompting both the EU and U.S. to call for a speedy investigation.
Earlier, the OSCE, an international body that sent monitors for the vote, called the election a vital measure of "national political maturity".
But many Albanians feel that time is running out for politicians to deliver on their promises.
"We don’t want young people to leave, we want them to stay here but we need more job opportunities," Berti Jusufaj, 50, told AFP at a polling station in Tirana, drawing attention to the hundreds of thousands of Albanians living elsewhere in Europe or the U.S.
"We are tired, young people study and train to find work, promises follow and then we get nothing," added Mariela Sherrja, 26, a finance expert.