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Monday, June 24, 2013

Albanian opposition activist killed in election day shootout

PM and opposition leader condemn violence in Lac as Albanians vote in closely contested election

An activist was killed and a politician wounded in a shootout during a closely contested election in Albania on Sunday that is being watched by western allies worried about democracy in the country.

The opposition left scents victory in the vote, which would deny the prime minister, Sali Berisha, a third successive four-year term. But the threat of a disputed result is growing after a political row left the central election commission short-staffed and unable to certify the result.

Television pictures showed bullet casings scattered across a street and the smashed rear window of a car after the shootout in Lac. An opposition activist was killed and an election candidate of Berisha's ruling Democrats was wounded. Police said four guns were fired. Berisha condemned the violence.

Opinion polls are unreliable but point to a narrow victory for the Socialists led by Edi Rama, a former mayor of Tirana. He has been buoyed by an alliance with a small leftist party previously in coalition with Berisha.

After losing the last election in 2009, Rama called protesters into the streets and four were shot dead by security forces. Since the fall of communist rule in 1991 Albania has never held an election deemed fully free and fair, and failure again would further set back its ambitions to join the European Union.

Rama said the Lac shootout was an "effort to frighten people, to scare citizens away from the ballot boxes". "I appeal for people to vote, because a decision that takes just a few minutes will decide not just the next four years but the fate of a generation," he said after voting.

Including Albanian migrant workers abroad, there are 3.27 million eligible voters. Official results are due in the evening, but a system by which party members count the ballots has repeatedly led to disputes and delays.

Rama pulled his three representatives from the seven-member election commission in April after the coalition government sacked a member whose party had switched sides to support the Socialists.

The Socialists and the Democrats differ little on Albania's goal of joining the EU or its pro-western policy. But their confrontational relationship does not sit easy with Brussels or Albania's Nato allies.

The EU says the election is a crucial test. Albania applied to join four years ago but has not yet been made a candidate for membership.

The next government will take on an economy feeling the effects of the crisis in the eurozone, notably in Greece and Italy where about one million Albanians work and send money home. Albania has avoided recession but remittances are down and public debt and the budget deficit are rising. © 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds