Friday, July 01, 2005

Analysis: Albania's crunch poll - BBC

Albania's economy is growing but politics remains volatile

Albanians are going to the polls on Sunday in parliamentary elections seen as perhaps the least predictable since multi-party elections were instituted in 1991 after nearly 50 years of communist rule.

Opinion polls put the governing Socialists and the opposition Democratic Party neck-and-neck.

They also suggest that - for the first time - the balance of power might be held by a third party, the recently-formed Socialist Movement for Integration.

Outside the former Soviet Union, Albanians were the last nation in Europe to witness the collapse of communism.

And after decades of Stalinist rule, including a period of self-imposed isolation, they started from much further behind than the rest of eastern Europe.

Turbulent times

Since the early 1990s the economy has made brisk progress, and Albania is no longer Europe's poorest country.

But political life has remained volatile. And apart from the former Yugoslavia, Albania is the only country in the region to have experienced political violence on a large scale - during the uprising of 1997 that was provoked by the collapse of fraudulent pyramid schemes.

Fatos Nano: Pushing for integration with European institutions
Elections have been controversial. And although there has been improvement in recent years, this time the European Union has raised the stakes.

The EU insists on a clear linkage between an internationally-acceptable poll and the shared goal of Albania's political parties: the conclusion of a long-awaited Stabilisation and Association Agreement with the EU.

"We would like to see progress in a number of reform areas before being fully convinced that Albania can implement such an agreement," says Ambassador Lutz Salzmann, head of the EU office in Tirana.

Albania has come a long way since the 1997 uprising that toppled President Sali Berisha's administration, led by his Democratic Party.

The elections that followed the chaos that year returned to power the Socialist Party - the one-time communists - who have been in office ever since.

But perhaps not much longer. Under Prime Minister Fatos Nano the Socialists appear to have lost some of their popularity - partly because of what is widely perceived as extensive corruption, partly because of splits within the party, and partly because after eight years of Socialist governments, people are seeking an alternative.

Even prominent Socialist figures, such as ex-President Rexhep Meidani, are talking of the need for change.

"Albania needs a kind of new position to fight corruption, particularly in the administration... So we need a new government," he says.

Democratic Party revival

For many Albanians, though, change would mean a return to power for the Democratic Party.

Tirana's popular mayor Edi Rama defends the Socialists' record
Eight years after the chaotic end to its term in office, the Democratic Party appears to be well on the way to rehabilitating itself with the electorate.

The party's leader, Mr Berisha, says he has achieved "transparency" and opened up the party.

"Many people from civil society and the universities have joined a new forum drafting the programme - a very good programme - for the future government. The founders of the party are also rejoining the party. The party is different," he said.

Many political opponents disagree with that - and few of them more strongly than the Socialist mayor of Tirana, Edi Rama, whose success in transforming the Albanian capital into a more vibrant city has turned him into Albania's most popular politician.

As party leaders, Prime Minister Nano and ex-President Berisha are now fighting for victory for the sixth time in a general election.

But this time the kingmaker could turn out to be the leader of a third force - Ilir Meta of the Socialist Movement for Integration (LSI). He is a former Socialist prime minister, but he is keeping his options open until after Sunday's poll.

If he ends up in a key position, his political sympathies would clearly favour an alliance with the Socialists. But because of his personal animosities towards Mr Nano, he would insist on terms that the current prime minister might find hard to accept.

But the process of the elections is perhaps even more important this time than the actual outcome. Free and fair elections will be one of the main criteria for the EU to determine whether Tirana is ready to conclude a Stabilisation and Association Agreement; and for Nato to decide whether to invite Albania to join its ranks.

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