By Kerin Hope
Published: July 1 2005 03:00 | Last updated: July 1 2005 03:00
Disco music booms across Lake Ohrid as voters in Sunday's general election gather to hear Edi Rama, mayor of Tirana and Albania's most popular politician, call for a third straight term for the governing Socialist party.
"Our future is Europe and we must work to get there," says Mr Rama, an artist who has become an international celebrity for having the capital's once drab Stalinist-era buildings painted in fluorescent orange and pink and upgrading its parks. The New Yorker magazine recently called him "inexhaustible".
Like many Albanian towns, Pogradec, a trout-fishing centre and would-be tourist resort, has imitated the capital, but in muted shades of green and ochre. Remittances from migrant workers in Greece have fuelled a construction boom. Its internet cafés feature brand-new flat-screen computers.
Under the Socialists, Albania has achieved growth rates of about 6 per cent of gross domestic product for four successive years. Per capita incomes have doubled to the level of Romania. Trade with Italy and neighbouring Balkan countries flourishes.
But talks on a European Union stabilisation and association pact, the first step towards closer integration with the Union, have stalled because of the government's failure to tackle organised crime and entrenched corruption in the police and judiciary.
Sunday's vote will decide whether Albania resumes those talks with the prospect of signing the agreement later this year. As the only country in the Balkans that has failed to carry out an uncontested election, it still has to prove its democratic credentials.
An opinion poll published earlier this week showed the Socialists trailing with 34 per cent of the vote to 35 per cent for the right- of-centre Democratic party. With support of around 10 per cent, the Socialist Movement for Integration led by Ilir Meta, a former Socialist prime minister, appeared set to hold the balance of power in the 140-seat parliament.
Polling will be closely monitored by 400 observers from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe and 3,500 Albanian observers, mainly from civil society groups. To prevent irregularities, unopened ballot boxes will be driven under guard to regional centres for votes to be counted.
"In 15 years we've made very little progress with applying democratic rules. But if we want to take the road to Europe, this election is a test we have to pass," says Remzi Lani, director of the Albanian Media Institute.
But the contest is so tight, diplomats and local analysts say, that both Socialists and Democrats will be tempted to make widespread use of intimidation and competitive vote-buying - tactics that have influenced the outcome of previous elections.
The bitter personal rivalry between Fatos Nano, the prime minister, and Sali Berisha, the former president and Democratic party leader, raises fears of violent protests if the fairness of the election result is called into doubt.
Mr Nano was jailed under a Berisha government on corruption charges. He was freed in 1997 in the turmoil that followed the collapse of a series of fraudulent pyramid savings schemes - tolerated by Mr Berisha - in which depositors lost an estimated $2bn (€1.6bn).