Albania goes to the polls after fiery election campaign | Election News
Socialist Prime Minister Edi Rama faces the challenge of a dozen parties united behind the main opposition Democrats.
Albanians vote in parliamentary elections on Sunday after a bitter campaign marked by a shootout between rival supporters that prompted calls for calm from the United States and the European Union.
Prime Minister Edi Rama, who called for a “free and fair” vote, is seeking a third term and has promised to step down if his socialists fail to secure a majority.
He faces the challenge of a dozen parties united behind the main opposition Democrats, whose leader Lulzim Basha has told his supporters that Rama has failed for eight years and should no longer have a chance.
The rivalry between the two parties turned deadly in the last week of the campaign when a row over vote-buying allegations turned into a shootout in a town near the capital, killing a Socialist supporter and injuring four others.
All parties declare that they will implement the reforms necessary for the Balkan country to realize its dream of joining the EU.
Tirana was granted EU candidate status in 2014, but there has been little progress due to enlargement fatigue around the bloc and the lack of reforms in Albania. Last year, the bloc agreed to open membership negotiations.
But despite the booming pop music and the flag-waving crowd at the latest election rallies in Tirana, voters young and old have expressed frustration with the country’s politics and economy.
Opinion polls suggest that Rama’s socialists are ahead of their rivals, but commentators said large numbers of undecided voters made predictions tricky.
President Ilir Meta – a nemesis of Rama – was among the first to vote moments after the ballot opened at 0500 GMT, promising a “patriotic vote” to rebuild the foundations of the republic.
Economy hit by COVID-19
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 crisis.
A 2019 earthquake that killed 51 people and damaged more than 11,400 homes also hit the economy.
Rama, artist and former basketball player, is banking on a massive COVID-19 vaccination campaign to boost his popularity, promising that 500,000 Albanians will be vaccinated by the end of May.
“We are fighting to get Albania out of the pandemic tunnel for good,” he told supporters on Friday in the southern coastal town of Vlora, promising an economic transformation based on tourism, agriculture, energy and the digital economy.
Opponents of Rama say they will speed up the country’s EU membership drive and boost the economy with help for small businesses.
“You can’t give a man who has failed for eight years another chance, we are the future,” Basha told supporters at his last rally in Tirana on Friday.
The two main contenders traded beards throughout the campaign, with Basha accusing his rival of vote rigging and corruption, and Rama belittling his opponent like a puppet of party veterans and the president.
Ready for forks
Meta, whose wife heads a small party allied with the Democrats, said the “pitchforks” would be ready on Sunday in case the Socialists attempted to tamper with the votes – which drew an unimpressed reaction from the United States.
“It is unacceptable for anyone to threaten that citizens take” pitchforks “… These threats deserve to be condemned,” wrote US envoy Yuri Kim on Twitter.
The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, an international body that sends observers for the vote, called the election a vital step “national political maturity.”
Voting began at 7 a.m. (5 a.m. GMT) and is expected to continue until 7 p.m. (5 p.m. GMT) with officials promising results within two days.