TIRANA, ALBANIA — Saimir Hoxha began selling tomatoes and cucumbers on the street four years ago. Today, he supports his family on his expanded business, making about $500 a month - not shabby in a country where the average wage is $80 a month.
Like many Albanians, he quickly learned the ins and outs of capitalism when his country ended totalitarian rule in 1991. "Life in our country has improved in the past years, but the ones who feel it more who are the ones willing to work in private business like me," he says.
In general elections this Sunday, Mr. Hoxha plans to cast his vote for the ruling Democratic Party, led by President Sali Berisha, which swept to power in March 1992 after 45 years of Communism.
But not all Albania's 2.2 million voters have fared so well under this new democracy. The Democratic Party's reforms have left more than 300,000 unemployed. Ninety percent of industry has been shut down, 500,000 pensioners are struggling on an average of $30 per month, and thousands of Communists have been purged from their jobs in the name of reform.
It is the vote of these groups that the opposition Socialist Party is counting on this time. And even though polls have predicted the Democrats will be the biggest winners, with about 40 percent of the vote, many observers here say the race is too close to call.
"In 1990, I was among the student democracy demonstrators. In 1992, I voted for the Democratic Party," says Altin Bushi, a volunteer for the Socialist campaign in Tirana, the capital. He has been unemployed for two years. "We expected the Democratic Party would do something better for the people."
Others like Arif Shkelzeni, a 36-year member of the old Communist Party, portray the Democratic Party as a powerful clan that favors its own. "I was for democracy and pluralism, but not for this democracy that has favored those in the Democratic Party," Mr. Shkelzeni says. He says that both his daughters, an economist and an engineer, lost their jobs after the Democratic Party came to power. "I want private ownership, but I also want justice."
While Berisha and the Democrats acknowledge that they could not achieve everything in only four years, they point to their party as the one that will bring Albania into Europe.
Some 18 percent of Albanians are voting for the first time, says Afrim Krasniqi, who heads the Democrats' youth organization. His party has held huge pop concerts along with its rallies to attract youths. "The main question to be asked from voters is do we want to go on with reforms or turn back," Mr. Krasniqi says.
Warning voters of the threat of a return to Communism if the Socialists win has been a central theme for the Democrats. Their policies of anti-Communism have been building since last fall, when a new "antigenocide" law banned high officials and collaborators of the old Communist regime from running for the next two parliaments.
The elimination only weeks ago of some 45 Socialist candidates, including the already imprisoned party chairman Fatos Nano, by a commission set up to enforce the antigenocide law has hampered the Socialist campaign. The Socialists decry such moves as the Democrats' way of getting rid of the competition, and both the European Union and the US called on Albania last week to ensure that the elections will be free and fair.
Despite the sometimes vicious politics, few here in the capital - where carnival rides light up the once-gloomy city center - deny that life has gotten better. "The shops are full," says Nalije Sokoli, serving drinks in her son's restaurant. "I'll vote for the Democrats. But I think the Socialists also are walking with democracy."