Friday, July 08, 2005

Albania vote keeps EU door ajar - BBC

By Paulin Kola
BBC News

The elections were not a trauma this time
Regardless of the colour and hue of Albania's next government, it is now quite clear that the Balkan country has voted for change.

And the magnitude of this change is more significant than a mere rotation of governing parties and leaders.

The first litmus test came on Monday morning when - palpably relieved - voters went to work instead of flooding the streets to protest or watching apprehensively from behind window curtains.

"It's business as usual," analyst Lutfi Dervishi told BBC News as he left Tirana to train young journalists in southern Albania.

This is a man who has spent many a long night reporting on post-election chaos and outright violence.

Stark message

But this is a post-election scene Albanians are not used to.

Each of the previous polls produced turmoil - the losers unable to accept defeat and the winners thumbing their noses after an often rigged, violated and tainted ballot that set them on course towards enjoying the spoils of power.

This time both sides have pledged to accept the verdict of the electorate - and, more importantly, this verdict appears to reflect the will of the people.

This is no mean achievement in a country that risked being daubed in a permanent marker as master fraudster.

Many will be trying to gauge if the change in the man [Berisha] is real and long-lasting.

The persistent and pronounced lack of political will to hold a free election had forced the European Union to be crudely undiplomatic in threatening to close the door to Albania's Stabilisation and Association Agreement - the antechamber to club membership.

Prime Minister Fatos Nano could not afford to ignore so stark a message - and neither could his eternal nemesis, former President Sali Berisha. Despite the raised tones of the campaign, both men clearly instructed their followers to show restraint.

Both men then went on to break the law by claiming early victory - even though Mr Nano went on to say: "Meeting the standards in this election is more important than the results.

"The winner of this election is democracy itself. I am delighted that Albania... opened the last door to association and integration into the EU and Nato."

But as has often been the case, the two sides met half way through.

International election observers did not have glowing praise for the poll that complied "only partially" with agreed democratic standards.

Polling day itself "showed only limited progress over previous elections", the observers said in their preliminary report - noting the incident in central Tirana where a local monitor was shot dead.

Berisha 're-invented'

Early results suggest Albania's next government may be led by opposition leader Sali Berisha, the man forced out of the office of president in 1997 when Albania imploded in violence after the collapse of pyramid investment schemes - set up with Mr Berisha's blessing.

Since then, he has led a vociferous opposition to Mr Nano's government, slowly moving from his trademark charisma and aggressive demeanour to more muted tones.

Albania has changed much under Mr Nano - it is no longer the poorest country in Europe, the economy has done well, and there is generally a more open and liberal society.

Mr Berisha's behaviour will be closely watched by the man holding the EU door ajar - Foreign Policy Chief Javier Solana

But the prime minister's campaign tilted disproportionately towards the negative - Mr Nano banked too much on reminding Albanians of the painful memories of 1997.

For his part, the opposition leader was keen to stress he had changed - he told the BBC his target was to "overcome myself".

He won plaudits and votes after co-opting young professionals to work out a government programme and submit it to the electorate - another first for Albania.

And he followed this with re-opening the door to fellow founders of his Democratic Party who had been forced out by what they saw as Mr Berisha's stubborn autocracy.

Many will be trying to gauge if the change in the man is real and long-lasting.

If he becomes prime minister, the more anxious civil service will wait to see whether a partisan purge begins like in the past.

Nano and Berisha have been sworn enemies all along

More widely, voters will want to observe whether the autocracy that came into existence during Mr Berisha's previous tenure and which instilled great fear among political opponents is revived.

Mr Nano's immediate fate will be closely watched - not least in Western capitals. Mr Berisha has vowed to root out corruption - as well as to punish the prime minister he accuses of sitting at its top.

A previous Berisha administration jailed Mr Nano in 1993 in what was seen as political witch-hunt that backfired.

The Democratic leader may want to think twice about a repetition of history.

But he may be well advised to keep his promise to root out corruption - Albania's cancer that has spread through its weakened limbs.

In any event, Albania's next prime minister will be closely watched by the man holding the EU door ajar - Foreign Policy Chief Javier Solana.

At the moment, Mr Solana does not appear to be overly impressed.

After all, the election process ran aground in the final counting period - a clear violation of the law - sparking off traditional bickering and accusations of interference with the free vote and preparing the ground for contesting the result.

This will not win the country any brownie points in Brussels and its leaders will have to work a lot harder to push that EU door open.

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