Socialists usher in New Albania

Sali Berisha, under international pressure, concedes with grace after poll approved by observers

Albania's five turbulent years under President Sali Berisha were heading towards a swift and remarkably graceful conclusion yesterday as the ruling Democratic Party suffered a crashing election defeat at the hands of its Socialist rivals and the President, surprising almost everyone, accepted the result without a murmur.

The day after a vote which was riddled with minor problems but relatively free of the gang violence that has rocked the country for the past four months, the Socialists were cruising towards a huge parliamentary majority.

The party said it had won 63 seats outright, plus 10 more through electoral pacts with other parties. Once full results were available and the part of the race calculated by proportional representation was calculated, the party expected to garner up to 50 more seats in the 155-seat assembly.

Around a dozen results were still due in, two seats had to be contested again because of irregularities and 19 would be decided in a second round of voting next Sunday, the Socialists said. Their figures credited the Democratic Party with only seven seats so far.

The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, which monitored the election, said these results matched their own findings. There were no official results for most of yesterday and the final tally is not expected until today.

Despite the enormous difficulty of holding an election in a gun-ridden country on the verge of economic and social collapse, the OSCE described the vote as "adequate and acceptable".

Across the country, there were blasts of Kalashnikov fire through the night and all day yesterday to mark the defeat of a president held responsible for the devastating financial losses wreaked by the collapse of Albania's so-called pyramid investment schemes. But violence was kept to a minimum with only a handful of incidents reported.

The Democratic Party was so taken aback by the scale of its defeat that news bulletin after news bulletin on state television, which it controls, was simply cancelled. After a day of non-stop election coverage on Sunday, evening viewing consisted of Albanian folk-singing interspersed with warnings from the interior ministry not to hold street demonstrations.

The official wall of silence continued yesterday morning, as two senior party officials were summoned to the US embassy for a meeting that embassy sources said was intended to impress on them the need to abide by the will of the people.

Finally, at 2pm, Mr Berisha himself appeared on television to admit defeat. Looking calm and relaxed, he urged his supporters to "treat the verdict with courage and dignity and to continue together ... our efforts, as an opposition, to consolidate democracy". He also vowed to respect the declarations he had made before and during the election campaign - a line widely interpreted as honouring a pledge to resign following his defeat. Under the Albanian constitution, it is up to parliament to elect the president, so Mr Berisha will probably stay in office long enough to see the new assembly sworn in.

After five years of scant regard for democratic principles, in which all the problems were automatically blamed on a "Stalinist-terrorist" opposition, Mr Berisha - under intense international pressure - behaved with aplomb, to the relief of many opponents who expected him to denounce the elections as unfair. His only omission was a failure to congratulate the man expected to succeed him, the Socialist leader Fatos Nano.

Mr Nano called for an end to the deep polarisation in Albanian politics that had helped create an atmosphere of fear and violence, and welcomed the beginning of "an age of peace, co-operation, co-habitation and co- existence" that would enable Albania to get back on the road to democracy.

He said he hoped Mr Berisha would resign as he had promised but noted that parliament had the powers to impeach him if necessary. "There are structures to assist, if not to force, Mr Berisha to be a man of his word," he said.

The challenges ahead are enormous - disarming the rebel bands so that roads, towns and villages can be made safe again; building a barely developed economy that has been devastated by the collapse of the pyramid schemes; and encouraging a truly pluralistic culture in which the media is free and both government and opposition can co-exist peacefully.

t An Italian soldier was badly wounded in shooting in the Adriatic port of Vlora and was flown to Bari in Italy for treatment, Reuters reports. Wild shooting broke out in Vlora, following rumours that President Berisha had resigned.

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