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Electorate flirt with return of the Zog dynasty

Just for a moment yesterday, it looked as though Albania was turning the clock back more than 60 years and doing what no European country has done since the fall of Franco - reviving its monarchy.

One of the more bizarre sideshows of Sunday's general elections was a referendum asking Albanians whether they were happy with their republican system or preferred to have a king again, just as in the bad old days of King Zog and his court of puffed-up puppets.

Nobody had given the referendum a second thought, dismissing it as one of President Sali Berisha's more eccentric political games, but yesterday morning supporters of Zog's son and heir, Leka Zogu, grabbed the post- electoral limelight and cried victory. "We've got 54 per cent," said one spokesman. "Actually, it's nearer 70," said another.

A chill wind was suddenly felt in Albanian political circles. How could an electorate that had just handed the Socialist Party an overwhelming parliamentary majority do such a thing? Did this mean the country would readopt its repressive, highly autocratic 1928 constitution, as the monarchists were insisting?

Constitutionalists scratched their heads and wondered whether the "yes" vote was absolute or depended on a vote in the new parliament. Scurrilous political journalists noted that the referendum made no reference to Leka and wondered if any old monarch would do. "Maybe we should ask Prince Charles," said one. "Or Chris Patten," said Ben Blushi, editor of the Albanian newspaper Indipendent. "After all, he's looking for a job."

By mid-afternoon, it became clear that the rumours were unfounded and the monarchy, although scoring far better than anyone expected, was in no danger of reasserting itself.

Leka, who was whisked out of Albania as a babe-in-arms when the Italians invaded in 1939, returned to the country for the first time earlier this year to launch his campaign. In Vlora, epicentre of the armed anti-government revolt, he survived just 20 minutes before fleeing the men with guns. His life as a jaded aristocrat did not at first sight appear to qualify him to lead one of the world's craziest, most impoverished countries.

His father, Ahmed Zogu, was an ambitious politician from northern Albania who seized the presidency by force in the early 1920s and elevated himself to king in 1928. Zog bled the country dry and had a love-hate relationship with Fascist Italy that culminated in the annexation of his country in 1939.

Zog and his family took refuge in the Ritz hotel in Piccadilly, nicknamed "Zog's Circus", and was never invited back to his home country again.