Deadly shootout mars Albania vote
TIRANA - Agence France-Presse
A girl waits her grandmother to vote in a polling station in Tirana, June 23, 2013. Albania will start to vote for the general election on Sunday. REUTERS photoOne man was killed and three people were wounded in an apparently politically motivated shooting in Albania on Sunday during a crucial vote that could determine whether one of Europe's poorest countries has a chance of joining the EU.
The shootout in the northern town of Lac "might be related to the vote," police spokeswoman Alma Katragjini told AFP without elaborating.
The dead man was a 53-year old leftist opposition activist, said a source close to the Socialist-led coalition of former Tirana mayor Edi Rama, but this could not be independently confirmed.
The source also said that one of the wounded was a candidate from the ruling Democratic party of conservative Prime Minister Sali Berisha, who is seeking his third mandate to lead Albania after eight years in power.
Fears had been running high that vote disputes between supporters of Berisha and Rama could erupt into violence and around 6,000 police were on duty on Sunday to try to keep the peace.
Accusations of vote-buying and electoral roll irregularities were flying ahead of the election, raising concerns of a repeat of the 2009 polls which descended into a political crisis.
Having failed to deliver clean elections since the fall of communism two decades ago, Albania desperately needs to prove that it is able to hold fair polls that meet international standards if it is to have a shot at joining the EU.
Since the collapse of Enver Hoxha's communist regime in 1990, polls in Albania have been marred by violence and allegations of vote-fixing.
And once again, as Albania's 3.2 million voters began choosing lawmakers for the 140-seat assembly, the electoral system appears to be struggling to meet international standards.
The top electoral commission -- the agency tasked with certifying the vote -- remains paralysed, with no progress made in efforts to replace three of its seven members.
They quit in April over a dispute between Berisha's ruling coalition and the opposition.
Brussels, which has twice rejected Tirana's EU membership application, said the vote "represents a crucial test for the country's democratic institutions and its progress towards the European Union".
Eugen Wollfarth, head of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) mission in Tirana, called on politicians to "consider what is best for the country," which became a NATO member in 2009.
A Western diplomat who asked not to be named warned of a "great risk the results would be contested, either by the outgoing coalition or by the opposition".
Opposition leader Rama, a Paris-schooled painter, also alleges irregularities in the electoral register and attempts by the ruling Democrats to buy voters.
"I strongly hope that people's will would not be manipulated... but these elections are not like ones that a NATO or EU member country should have," Rama said.
Berisha, a cardiologist who is seeking his third term as prime minister, dismissed Rama's claims as an "opposition's attempt to justify in advance its next electoral defeat".
The Democrats have pledged new investments while accelerating Albania's path towards the EU.
Berisha has also promised a six percent hike in wages and pensions to come into effect after the election.
"People are voting calmly, the only tensions are in the heads of the politicians ready to mobilise their supporters," said independent observer Arta Buzi.
In Tirana, people were queueing to cast their ballots even before polling stations opened at 0500 GMT.
"In Albania, everyone is so obsessed with politics, they think of it even when they make love," said 30-year old engineer Arsen Prifit, smiling broadly.
Some 600 international observers are monitoring the polls which are to close at 1700 GMT, while first preliminary results are expected on Monday.