Democrats claim victory in Albania amid poll turmoil

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The Independent Online
Albania's young democracy was thrown into turmoil yesterday as the country's ruling Democratic Party claimed a crushing victory in Sunday's general elections. But the opposition, ranging from former Communists to free-market conservatives, refused to recognise the result, saying it had been obtained through intimidation, violence and widespread cheating at the polls.

Some results were announced before counting was complete. President Sali Berisha, who has ruled the country with increasing authoritarianism and disregard for human rights over the past four years, claimed his party had clinched more than 60 per cent of the vote - a seemingly incredible result which far exceeded the most optimistic opinion-poll forecasts and predictions by foreign observers.

A number of Democratic Party candidates were credited with 80 per cent or more of the vote in their constituencies. Tritan Shehu, the party chairman, was said to have polled 92 per cent in Kavaja. Of the 115 seats being decided by a majority system, as many as 112 were last night claimed for the party in power - even though some ballots from more remote rural areas were yet to be collected, much less counted.

Even at the height of its popularity, in 1992, the Democratic Party polled no more than 62 per cent. At that time it was the spearhead of a popular movement to rid Albania of its hard-line Communist past. Since then, however, it has shed many original members who have fallen out with Mr Berisha, and is regarded by many Albanians as a corrupt and authoritarian ruling force.

Nine opposition groups, including the Socialist Party (the former Communists), pulled out of the election while the polls were still open on Sunday evening, alleging that voters and returning officers had been systematically intimidated and citing several cases of beatings and arrests.

"Members of local electoral commissions from our parties were attacked by the security services and by gangsters manipulated by the Democratic Party," said Gramoz Pashko, a leading economist running with the centre- right Democratic Alliance. "Our people . . . were prepared to defend themselves, but we decided to withdraw from the election instead to avoid civil unrest."

Yesterday, the parties issued a joint statement saying they would not take part in next Sunday's electoral run-off and that any successful candidates would not take up their seats in parliament. Instead, they called for a demonstration at noon today in the main square of the capital, Tirana, telling their supporters it was the last chance to defend Albanian democracy against what they called a "coup d'etat".

Mr Berisha, in reply, accused the opposition of being bad losers. "A group of Marxists, who deserved a full defeat, has lost," he told a news conference.

The elections were monitored by several hundred international observers, but their reaction to the ballot yesterday was slow and confused. The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) acknowledged "a number of irregularities", but said it was too soon to say whether the result of the elections was fair.

Other observers who expressed an immediate opinion were largely split along party political lines; the Belgian Socialist Therese Boutsen reported violent clashes between opposition supporters and the police, and Urban Ahlin of Sweden alleging widespread ballot-stuffing. But the pro-Berisha Italian deputy Fiorello Provera excluded any systematic vote- rigging, saying the election had passed off far more peacefully than he had expected.

Several European countries actively supported Mr Berisha and the Democrats during the election campaign, believing them to be the best hope for stability in the Balkans and the most reliable guarantors of foreign investment in Albania.

"Europe is responsible for this situation, because it gave Berisha a green light to go ahead and conduct the elections in this manner," Mr Pashko charged.

It is unclear what will happen next. If the election results are allowed to stand, Albania will in effect turn into a one-party state, with Mr Berisha's men wielding near-total control not only over government and parliament, but also over the judiciary and the country's other key institutions. If the opposition manages to organise widespread protests on the streets, then the country risks sliding into an ugly civil conflict.

Yesterday, the atmosphere in Tirana appeared calm, with street cafes full, and people going about their business. One Tirana resident said: "I don't think many people will turn out for the opposition demonstration because they understand it could turn very ugly and they are afraid."