EU warns Albania to avoid violence during disputed elections

Clashes stoke tension before ballot opposed by president and opposition party

 Head of Albania’s opposition Democrats Lulzim Basha addressing supporters during a protest in Tirana on June 21st. Photograph:  Malton Dibra/EPA

Head of Albania’s opposition Democrats Lulzim Basha addressing supporters during a protest in Tirana on June 21st. Photograph: Malton Dibra/EPA

 

The European Union has urged Albanians to avoid violence amid rising tension before Sunday’s local elections, which the country’s president wants to postpone and its main opposition party plans to boycott.

The ruling Socialist party of prime minister Edi Rama insists the vote must go ahead to strengthen democracy and the EU membership credentials of Albania, which has witnessed months of political turmoil and sometimes violent anti-government demonstrations.

The centre-right Democrats are refusing to take part in the ballot, however, and instead demand snap parliamentary elections in a bid to oust a Socialist party that they accuse of major corruption and having links to organised crime.

Albanian police have reported at least one arson attack and several clashes and arrests this week at election centres around the country of 2.8 million people, with tension particularly high in Democratic-run districts where local officials oppose the vote.

“Albanian citizens must be able to exercise their right to vote in an orderly and peaceful manner,” the EU delegation to Albania said on Friday.

“Any violent act or any form of incitement to violence are absolutely unacceptable under any circumstances. All political sides need to show restraint and avoid inflammatory rhetoric,” the mission added in a statement.

The 57-country Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) said it “condemns the recent violent attacks targeting the bodies in charge of organising elections in municipalities across Albania, damaging schools and voting materials”.

“We urge all stakeholders to uphold the rule of law, respect the constitutional roles of the respective democratic institutions and fundamental rights, and avoid violence . . . Any attempt to derail the democratic process through violent action stalls the progress of Albania and stains the country’s international reputation.”

Albanian president Ilir Meta, a critic of the government, announced on Thursday that he was postponing the elections until October 13th, to allow for the country’s political crisis to be resolved and for the Democrats to take part.

Mr Rama responded immediately with a tweet saying: “June 30th is the only election date.”

Impeachment

The Socialist-controlled parliament has launched impeachment proceedings against Mr Meta and declared his decree invalid, but he insists that only the country’s constitutional court has the power to quash his orders.

“There will be no election without the opposition. They won’t be allowed, they won’t be accepted, they won’t be recognised,” said Lulzim Basha, leader of the Democrats, whose deputies gave up their parliamentary mandates in February.

The party has led regular protests this year to channel public anger and frustration over a host of issues, from corruption and the rising cost of education, to alleged vote buying at 2017 elections and accusations of government links to mafia groups.

Mr Rama and his allies reject the allegations and insist they are working hard to fight graft, crime and cronyism in Albania, in line with EU requests.

The government says the Democrats are damaging the country’s hopes of securing a date for the start of EU membership talks later this year, after the bloc postponed a decision on negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia this month.