In Albania, a mayoral vote gone awry threatens EU membership bid

Opposition leaders have called for European mediation to resolve a disputed mayoral election in the capital Tirana that is deepening political divisions throughout Albania.

By , Correspondent

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    Police in Tirana, Albania, block opposition supporters from approaching the Central Election Commission building on May 23, to protest the delay in the release of results from the May 8 local elections, in which they claim their leader Edi Rama won re-election as mayor of the capital. The election commission is considering a recount of the votes.
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As Albania’s two-year political crisis risks spiraling out of control, the opposition is now calling for international intervention.

Edi Rama, the maverick head of the Socialist Party (PS), called for urgent help to prevent the crisis from “turning into a time bomb for our country’s future.”

Albania’s political scene has been starkly divided since accusations of election fraud followed 2009 parliamentary polls. Since then, tensions have flared over the shooting of four antigovernment protesters by security forces in January and the ongoing dispute over a mayoral vote in Tirana, the capital.

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Now, political tension appears close to the boiling point.

Mr. Rama, who was the incumbent in the Tirana election and deemed the loser by the country's election commission, says he was robbed in the close race and has refused to concede.

This week in an open letter to the Albanian people, Rama launched a stinging attack on Prime Minister Sali Berisha, whose Democratic Party (PD) was deemed the winner of the mayor vote, accusing him of “robbing” and “killing innocent people."

He also rebuked the country’s Central Electoral Commission (CEC) of turning “the loser into a winner” and breaking the law after it overturned exceptionally tight mayoral election in Tirana. It declared Lulzim Basha, a rising star of the PD, the winner by only marginally more votes after an allocation of miscast ballots.

EU membership

The local elections in May were meant to help break Albania’s political deadlock and mark a new stride forward in the country’s progress toward European Union membership, but have done quite the opposite.

Albania remains one of Europe’s poorest countries, still scarred by the legacy of eccentric Stalinist dictatorship of Enver Hoxha, who led the country to a hermetic diplomatic and economic isolation. Transition since the fall of communism in 1991 has been exceptionally difficult, and the country came to the brink of civil war during unrest in 1997 during which 3,000 to 4,000 people died; divisions from that time and indeed decades before are to an extent reflected in the current political situation.

Mr. Berisha's party retained power in the hotly contested 2009 general election. The PS claimed the government’s tight victory had been fixed, despite international observers saying the vote was largely free and fair, and boycotted parliament for nine months in protest.

Venice Commission

Rama now wants to take the dispute over the mayoral vote to the Venice Commission, an international constitutional body established by the Council of Europe, for adjudication – a move that Berisha has rejected.

“If the legal battle does not yield an acceptable result, then they [the opposition] will turn again to what they call ‘popular resistance’,” says Alba Cela, senior researcher at the Albanian Institute for International Studies (AIIS). “We definitely can expect protests, road blocks, and the like.”

Albania’s backsliding over the past two years has caused serious concerns for its NATO allies and the EU, but the international community is currently wary of stepping in directly to an internecine Balkan fracas. Even if the Venice Commission were to call the electoral shots, there is little sign that the defeated party would be willing to accept its ruling, given how high the stakes have risen.

Mayoral challenge

Initial results from the May 8 election suggested that Rama had won a fourth term as mayor by a wafer-thin margin of 10 votes. However, complications swiftly emerged.

The Tirana vote had involved four separate elections, with the relevant ballots being placed in four different boxes. Some of the ballots were placed in the wrong boxes, and the CEC ordered an unprecedented count of those voting papers. After the miscast ballots were included, Basha emerged victorious by 81 votes. The PS appealed against the decision to the country’s Electoral College (EC) of senior judges, which upheld Basha’s victory.

Overall, the countrywide local polls were seen as a great success for the PS, which made gains countrywide, including winning several traditional PD bastions in the north.

However, the rulings of the CEC and EC have outraged the opposition, who have staged protests and launched a final appeal to the College, which is due to be heard on June 13. While the appeal is expected to fail again, the PS has been marshaling an array of legal arguments against the inclusion of miscast ballots, while firing off allegations of poll-rigging and political bias.

Prominent PS coordinator Elion Veliaj, who is close to Rama, accused the government of “robbery in broad daylight in the most stupid and blatant manner."

“The judges have been blackmailed,” says Mr. Veliaj. “In all previous elections, miscast ballots have been considered invalid.”

Veliaj echoed Rama’s call for international intervention, saying that the EU should cajole the government into taking the dispute to the Venice Commission.

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and European Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fule have noted “concern” about “the legal soundness of the decision of the CEC to count the so-called misplaced ballots," but called for Albanian politicians to put aside party interest in seeking a resolution.

The US, which sees Albania as a close ally, may also have a role to play. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Countryman has expressed Washington concerns about the legal basis for including misplaced ballots in the count, and also floated the possibility of a Venice Commission ruling, but added that it would be Tirana’s responsibility to decide on this course of action.

"The international image of Albania is suffering quite a lot," says Mr. Cela. "The cancellation of a planned visit of the [European Commission President José Manuel Barroso] and Fule upon grounds that with this crisis there is no talk of integration is a clear signal – it’s bad news. The Albanian economy is suffering because foreign investors are concerned and because long term instability scares away tourism."

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