At the George W. Bush cafe, next to the table where the former US President sat to discuss a US-funded microloan program with a baker, a barber, a tailor, and a shepherd when he visited Albania in June 2007, Ertion Muca had a hard time convincing his friend why he voted for the Albanian opposition.
As elsewhere in this tiny Balkan nation of 3.6 million, the crowd was spilt between the ruling Democratic Party of incumbent Prime Minister Sali Berisha and the Socialist Party led by his arch rival, Tirana's mayor, Edi Rama.
Three days after voting ended in Sunday's parliamentary elections – seen as a crucial test of the country's democratic credentials as Albania, a new member to NATO, applies for membership to the European Union – near-complete results showed the Democrats were ahead by just more than one percentage point.
Democrats claimed victory Wednesday, but it was unclear whether Mr. Berisha had secured enough seats in Parliament needed to govern alone. Senior Socialist party official Ditmir Bushati accused the Democrats of hatching a "black plan to grab our victory," adding that "these elections, unfortunately, have fulfilled no standard. The result has been significantly deformed."
International election observers agreed that the vote did not meet international standards. But in a joint statement issued on Monday, the foreign monitors concluded that Albania's election process demonstrated "marked improvements" over past elections marred by fraud and violence. The overall progress, including the lack of violence Sunday, will have to be weighed against these most recent electoral shortcomings as Europe considers Albania's bid to join the EU.
"The country has matured, it has made progress, and many of the fears we had only some months ago have not materialized," says Wolfgang Grossruck, vice-president of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's (OSCE) parliamentary assembly. "I'm certainly happy about the progress we saw, but there are also a considerable number of issues that need to be tackled, in particular the polarized political climate."
'No losers today'
The Democrat-led government, which was in charge of organizing the electoral process, sounded a far more positive note.
"There are no losers today," Mr. Berisha commented when the polls closed. "The poll has been a victory for the Albanian people on their route to the European Union."
However, not every one is convinced.
"By failing to make greater progress, Albania has missed a golden opportunity to put the question of its [EU] candidate status beyond doubt," says Gabriel Partos, an Eastern Europe analyst with the Economist Intelligence Unit. "If Europe's economic problems exacerbate [EU] enlargement fatigue, Albania's electoral shortcomings could yet be a set-back to Albania's EU hopes over the next year or two."
US credibility on the line?
The US invested a lot diplomatic credit for Albania's accession to NATO in April, and if fraud is once again presented in the electoral process, Washington could be deeply embarrassed. More details about alleged voting irregularities are expected to emerge in coming days.
However, some analysts believe that despite Albania's shortcomings the decision to offer it NATO membership was the right one.
"The fact that the elections were far from perfect doesn't undermine the sound reasons for including Albania in NATO," says Gabriel Partos, an Eastern Europe analyst with the Economist Intelligence Unit. "In any case, NATO itself is not an alliance of democratic saints, but like other multinational organizations, such as the EU, it helps 'level up' democratic standards among its newer members so they can catch up with the established democracies."