Albanians Head to Polls After Violence Mars Campaign’s Close

Albanians Head to Polls After Violence Mars Campaign’s Close

At least two shootings, one fatal, have overshadowed the last leg of an election campaign held in an even tenser atmosphere than usual.

Voters in Albania head to polling stations on April 25 to elect 140 members of a new parliament after a tense campaign marked by heated polemics and even a murder.

A total of 5,199 polling stations will be opened on Sunday at 7am for the country’s parliamentary elections with 3,588,869 registered voters while Central Election Commission has accredited more than 3,000 short-term, long-term and media observers from local and international organisations, including the OSCE/ODIHR mission.

People in the country who are currently sick with COVID-19 will not be able to vote, since there is no appropriate safety infrastructure in place for them to cast a ballot. Prime Minister Edi Rama has called on them to “stay home” for election day.

Edi Rama, the Socialist Party chief and Prime Minister, is seeking a third mandate running the government. His main rival, the Democratic Party’s, Lulzim Basha, seeks a first mandate after eight years in opposition.

Rama’s Socialists are running alone in this election while the Democratic Party has formed a coalition, the “Alliance for Change”. It has also signed an agreement with Socialist Movement for Integration, LSI, of Monika Kryemadhi, to collaborate after the elections.

The last days of the campaign were marred by serious violence and a fatality in the central town of Elbasan, after supporters of the two biggest parties clashed on 14 March, ironically when both Rama and Basha were visiting to celebrate “Summer Day”.

Pjerin Xhuvani, a known name in the community who had been a local politician for the LSI but who lately joined the Socialist Party, was shot dead on Wednesday in unclear circumstances.

The US embassy issued a message calling on “President [Ilir] Meta, Prime Minister Rama, and Democratic Party Chairman Basha to exercise restraint – and to lead accordingly – pending an investigation into this case”.

Two days before, in another incident in the town of Kavaja, a local secretary of the Democratic Party was shot in the leg in his party office.

President Meta has also been involved in the campaign’s physical violence, at one point physically clashing with municipal police in Tirana over the issue of the local offices of a small political party.

He has also warned several times that those who dare to buy votes will have their hands “cut”.

Many Albanians can’t exercise right to vote

Although all sides promised to change this for years, this time, too, because of the failure to adopt the necessary legislation, a diaspora numbering around 1.8 million Albanians – a huge figure for a country with 3.5 million people, which includes those living abroad – won’t be able to vote. Political parties blame each other for this failure.

People in the country who have tested COVID-positive won’t be able to vote either, since there is no appropriately safe infrastructure in place for them to go to polling stations.

Prime Minister Rama has told them to “stay home” for the day of the elections. In other recent elections in the region, however, in Northern Macedonia, Montenegro and Kosovo, COVID-positive patients could cast votes.

A new order from the government early this week, imposing quarantine on arrivals from Greece and Northern Macedonia, is seen as another obstacle to voting, effectively preventing the many Albanians who live in Greece from casting ballots. The community in Greece represents one of the biggest slices of the Albanian diaspora.

EU integration vs big infrastructure projects

Rama has focused his campaign on the vaccination of the population from Covid-19, on reconstruction of sites damaged by a major earthquake in November 2019 and other “big projects”, mostly related to airports.

He recently inaugurated a new airport in the north of the country in Kukes and has signed a new agreement for another airport in Vlora with a consortium of companies, including Mabetex, owned by Kosovo’s tycoon-turned-politician Behgjet Pacolli, and a Turkish company, YDA.

Basha has focused his narrative of Albania’s EU integration, stopping mass emigration and helping businesses.

Some independents are trying their hand

Some independent candidates are running in the elections, three of them supported by the Vetevendosje Movement in Albania, sister movement of Albin Kurti’s governing party in Kosovo, running in Tirana, Lezhe and Gjirokaster.

Relations between the Kosovo Vetevendosje leader and PM Kurti and Rama don’t seem good. Rama refused to comment on Kurti’s action when asked about by media outlet Euronews Albania.

Another independent candidate, Elton Debreshi, from the mining community, is running in Bulqiza seeking better conditions and higher status for miners in Albania.

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