Albania gets second shot at democracy head over 2 lines here please

New poll offers chance to restore credibility. Andrew Gumbel reports

International observers will be keeping their fingers crossed that Albania can claw its way back to a semblance of democratic normality on Sunday, as the country is called out to vote for the first time since last May's farcical general elections, in which the ruling Democratic Party crushed the opposition through a mixture of intimidation and cheating.

Under heavy diplomatic pressure, notably from the United States and Italy, the government has changed the electoral law to give more breathing space to the opposition and has kept the peace in what has been a remarkably quiet election campaign.

"There are no posters around and very few rallies. You have to pinch yourself to remember that an election is taking place at all," one resident of the capital, Tirana, reported.

If the elections are deemed to be fair, they will be an important first step in restoring Albania's democratic credibility. But if there is a repeat of last May's intimidation by young thugs and systematic ballot- rigging - which resulted in the opposition's refusal to recognise the result - it will be a signal that the country is sliding irrevocably into authoritarian one- party rule.

Clearly, the international community's policy has been to try to wean President Sali Berisha back on to the democratic track slowly, but without obliging him to lose face.

Pressure to re-run the parliamentary elections has been muted so far, and in exchange Mr Berisha has agreed to tighten up the electoral procedures to reduce the risk of cheating. The President has also awarded the opposition far greater access to the state-run broadcast media.

The campaign has not been without its tensions.

The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe had planned to send a team of observers from its Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), the body that compiled the most thorough, and most damning, report into the irregularities last time.

Earlier this week, Mr Berisha's government tried to veto certain members of the ODIHR team, saying that they were not objective, and as a result the OSCE decided to withdraw the whole lot in protest. Albania's main opposition party, the Socialists, accused the government of taking an "act of primitive revenge" against a respectable body that had dared to criticise it.

There will, nevertheless, be around 400 international monitors at polling stations around the country, 150 of them from Italy which has taken the diplomatic lead on Albania on behalf of the European Union.

Potential flashpoints to watch for will be the mayoral races in the big cities, especially Tirana, where considerable political power is at stake and all the parties are fielding high-profile candidates. The Democratic Party currently controls all five of Albania's biggest cities and will be reluctant to relinquish any of them.

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