AT a recent political rally in Tirana's Qemal Stafa Stadium, thousands of students cheered as long-haired comedians told jokes and mini-skirted girls danced to Elvis Presley's "Jailhouse Rock" - all in a country where long hair, miniskirts, and rock music were once grounds for jail.
The show, staged by the Democratic Party, was as much a rebellion against the country's communist leader, Ramiz Alia, as it was a pep rally for Sali Berisha - a cardiologist-turned-politician who hopes to succeed Mr. Alia as president in Albania's parliamentary elections next Sunday.
More than a dozen parties are competing for 140 seats in Parliament, which until early last year was completely dominated by the Albanian Communist Party formed in 1944 by the country's late Marxist dictator, Enver Hoxha.
While no single party is likely to garner more than 40 percent of the seats, the three biggest opposition parties together - the Democrats, the Social Democrats, and the Republicans - are expected to win more than 50 percent.
Despite their differences, all the parties, including the former communists, now sing the same tune: democracy, free-market economy, and respect for human rights. Yet Mr. Berisha seems to have the most personal appeal, especially among young people.
"Sali Berisha is the best man I know," said 20-year-old art student Geront Turku, who attended the rally with his girlfriend. "He's very sincere. His ideas are democratic, and he's anticommunist. The communists are dangerous."
Berisha, whose party won 39 percent of the seats in last year's elections, says his No. 1 priority is to end his impoverished country's long isolation and restore public order.
"We want to build up a society of free enterprise, a state of law with full respect for human rights, and we want to see our people and our nation integrated into Europe," Berisha said in an interview. "The communists want to keep power, but they're totally paralyzed. They're no longer able to govern."
Indeed, a feeling of anarchy grips visitors in Albania these days. Residents say the country of 3.2 million people - which under Hoxha was a ruthless police state - is now being run by thugs.
Store shelves are virtually empty, and goods can only be purchased at exorbitant prices on the black market, which seems to thrive everywhere. The streets of Tirana are deserted at night because of an upsurge in violent crime. The Albanian lek is now worth less than a penny, and Marlboro cigarettes have become the medium of exchange.
"We don't produce anything. Nothing functions here. Everything we eat comes from abroad. Raw materials don't exist," laments Svetlana Roko, an official at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. "This is why the economic situation is so bad."
Berisha says the communists are deliberately allowing Albania to slide into chaos as part of their election strategy. "They want to show the people we were much better under dictatorship, but I think the people won't buy it."
Yet Berisha has no interest in punishing the communists. "I'm for reconciliation," he says. "If we punished them, we'd need more concentration camps than Enver Hoxha had."
Spiro Dede, vice president of the Socialist Party of Albania - formerly Hoxha's Albanian Communist Party - denies his comrades are criminals. "We are a serious party, we have a very democratic platform, a lot of good people, honest people," he said. "We have nothing in common with the communist party."
Sir Geoffrey Pattie, vice-chairman of Britain's Conservative Party in charge of relations with Europe, calls that a lie.
"Ramiz Alia had one of the most appalling communist regimes [in Europe]," the British politician said during a recent visit to Albania. "What these people need is a big change, one they can see. They won't get any investment until they have a democratically elected government, until Albania gets rid of the stained and discredited communist and crypto-communist regime.
"The last election was free, but not fair," Sir Geoffrey added. "People now are much more aware of what's going on in the country. The freeing up of the broadcast media has had a great effect."
One example of that is the widespread publicity Albanian television is giving to charges by John McGough, a Swiss doctor working in Albania, that the communists secretly airlifted 10 tons of gold to Switzerland in 1990. Sporadic violence and continuing efforts by Albanians to escape to Italy on freighters also get nightly TV coverage.
Such coverage would have been unheard-of during the Hoxha years, when Albanians risked jail by watching Italian TV or listening to the Voice of America. Today, nobody measures their rooftop antennas, and they can choose from among competing newspapers printed by more than a dozen political parties.
Yet one Albanian diplomat who served in China during the 1970s, when Hoxha looked to Mao Zedong for guidance, said "there's no party in Albania" that can solve the country's problems overnight.
"The tension always exists, but all depends on an improvement of the economic situation," said the diplomat, who asked not to be named. "If the Socialist Party wins, we'll be on the eve of civil war."