Albania poll tests limits of freedom and fairness

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"The important thing about the Albanian elections," observed one urbane European diplomat, "is that they should be free, fair and well- contested." Important indeed, but as the country gears up for its third post-Communist general election starting on 26 May, fairness looks like a relative term at best.

The leader of the opposition Socialist Party, Fatos Nano, is in jail on charges that have been denounced as spurious by international human rights organisations. Several other Socialists have been harassed by a judiciary steadily purged of nearly all independent or anti-government voices. Some 70 politicians, all but three of them from opposition parties, have been banned by a government-appointed commission from running for office.

Meanwhile, the ruling Democratic Party, led by President Sali Berisha, has a stranglehold on the broadcast media, which pumps out propaganda on its behalf. It has kept up steady pressure on opposition newspapers, with the help of a press law that has been used to penalise criticism of government and public officials in violation of Albania's own constitution.

The infringements of human rights have been so frequent and, often, so blatant, that even the US State Department, once one of President Berisha's most energetic champions, has issued a statement denouncing abuses by the security services, undue pressure on the judiciary and restrictions on the rights to assembly and free speech.

Perhaps more than any other eastern European country in the post-Communist era, Albania is struggling to accept notions of pluralism and an open society. Partly this is the legacy of 50 years of extreme repression, isolationism and deep poverty. No doubt some of the present corruption and racketeering is inevitable. But part of the blame must also go to President Berisha.

"He is building up a system of absolute state control," said Gramoz Pashko, a former minister now running for parliament with the Democratic Alliance, a rival centre-right party. "Instead of using his victory four years ago as a way of creating a healthy parliamentary democracy, he has become more and more authoritarian."

Despite - and perhaps because of - the advantages the Democratic Party has awarded itself, there is a strong chance that the Socialists will end up winning the election. Voter disillusionment with President Berisha is widespread, and most Albanians seem convinced that the Socialists - reformed heirs to Enver Hoxha's Party of Labour - will follow the example set by other former Communists in eastern Europe.

The political climate is thus racked by tension, and the fear among opposition groups and foreign diplomats is that the election could become invalidated through fraud, or even just the perception that fraud has taken place. That in turn could seriously destabilise a part of the Balkans that the international community has worked hard to keep out of the wars in the former Yugoslavia.

Although mindful of this fear, the ruling party has sent a number of disturbing signals. The government has redrawn constituency boundaries, to at least some advantage for the Democratic Party, and altered the electoral system to penalise smaller parties. Earlier this week, the central commission disqualified 20 candidates on the grounds, contested by their parties, that some of the signatures of their sponsors had been forged. Many of the 20 were opposition figures running in sensitive constituencies.

According to Paskal Milo, a historian running with the centre-left Social Democrats, opposition members of electoral commissions are receiving threats amid indications that ruling party loyalists are planning to stuff ballot boxes with extra voting slips. Foreign observers share some misgivings, although there seems to be a consensus that electoral fraud, if it takes place, can only be limited. Foreign diplomats say there are definitely people in the Democratic Party willing to cheat, but that Mr Berisha is discouraging them, if only because he needs the result to look authentic for his own credibility. Moreover, the country will be flooded with international observers.

But the issue could flare up if the results from the first round of the elections indicate a close race for the run-off on 2 June. Many observers are planning to go home after the first round, and the Democratic Party may feel emboldened by the fact that most European countries have expressed at least tacit support for President Berisha's government.

"We could face a very dangerous situation," said Mr Pashko. "If people feel they have been cheated, we will have civil unrest on the streets. That could destabilise not only Albania, but also Kosovo and Macedonia."

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