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Albania simmers on brink of poll violence

There will be little that is free and fair about tomorrow's parliamentary elections in Albania. There will be little that is democratic in any recognisable sense. The country is reaching the end of an excruciatingly tense campaign in which bullets and grenades have spoken far louder than candidates.

Many areas are in the thrall of armed gangs, the streets of many towns have remained eerily silent, even in broad daylight, and the few rallies taking place have been dogged by violence - or the pressing fear of it. And yet Franz Vranitzky, the international special envoy who has brokered these elections into existence, is right to assert that this is the last chance for democracy in Albania. Nobody is pretending that the elections will be perfect, but if they fail, they will destroy the last precarious threads of the fabric still holding the country together.

"The circumstances are unusual and many of us have never experienced anything like this," Mr Vranitzky said in Tirana earlier this week. "Optimism would be a luxury, pessimism is not a good tool, so realism is the only option."

And realism dictates that the country has to have a government that inspires a minimum of confidence, otherwise the gangs will never give up their weapons, the security forces will remain polarised along political lines and the apparatus of the state will remain where it has been since the breakdown of authority in March - floundering and helpless.

The good news is that election registration forms have been completed, ballot papers have been printed and should be distributed on time, and election monitors co-ordinated by Mr Vranitzky's Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, backed by members of the Italian-led multinational peace-keeping force, who are fanning out across all 13 of the country's "prefectures" or districts.

On Thursday, the main parties agreed on the last major sticking point - the hour at which the polls should close on Sunday night. The opposition successfully pressed its case for 6pm rather than 9pm, arguing that ballot- counting after dark could tempt partisans of one side or another to attempt fraud on the sort of scale that sabotaged elections a year ago.

Despite fears that large swaths of territory would remain unchecked, only three gang-ridden towns, all in the centre of the country, have been declared no-go zones by the international community: Cerrik, Gramsh and Ballsh. The flashpoints of this spring's armed anti-government rebellion, Vlora, Saranda and Gjirokaster, will all be patrolled and monitored.

OSCE officials, who just a few weeks ago were tearing their hair out because of the enormous problems still to be overcome, are now cautiously optimistic that the election will run as smoothly as is feasible under the circumstances.

The bad news is that a largely mountainous and inaccessible country will be monitored by no more than 500 observers, working in teams of two.

Coverage in rural areas will be patchy at best, while in the remote north-east, where many villages have suffered food shortages because of highwaymen intercepting supplies, it will be almost non-existent The threat of violence on election day is considerable in a country where more than 1,500 people have been killed in the past three months. This week there was gunfire and one death at a rally held by President Sali Berisha in Lushnja; there was a running street battle in Vlora that forced the local Socialist candidate, Arben Malaj, to seek shelter in a sports stadium until Italian troops could come to the rescue; and the father of a candidate in the south was kidnapped and threatened with death if his daughter did not stand down.

Even if the election produces a credible result, respected by all sides, the problems do not stop there. The mood in the country is unmistakable: people hold President Berisha to blame for the collapse of the so-called pyramid schemes in which they had invested their money, and are determined he should leave office.

But it is far from clear that the President will step aside, even though he has promised to do so in the event of a defeat for his Democratic Party. Mr Berisha has considerable means at his disposal through the secret police and elite units of the security forces trained to protect him. On Thursday, he told reporters: "I will continue politics until the last day. I will never withdraw."

But if he does not quit it seems likely that the armed rebellion that stopped just short of Tirana in March will simply resume. "If they don't remove him with their votes, they will take up their guns and remove him with their guns," said Albert Shyti, an opposition candidate and rebel leader in Vlora.