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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA celebration of British elections
Sport
Floyd Mayweather will relinquish his five world titles after beating Manny Pacquiao
boxing
Arts and Entertainment
tvGame of Thrones season 5 ep 4, review - WARNING: contains major spoiliers!
News
Tottenham legend Jimmy Greaves has defended fans use of the word 'Yid'
people
Life and Style
tech
Arts and Entertainment
The Ridiculous Six has been produced by Adam Sandler, who also stars in it
filmNew controversy after nine Native American actors walked off set
Life and Style
Google celebrates Bartolomeo Cristofori's 360th birthday
techGoogle Doodle to the rescue
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

£16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

£17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

Day In a Page

Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

Everyone is talking about The Trews

Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living