The people of Albania are to vote on Sunday (23 June) in an election seen as an important test of the country’s ambitions to join the European Union.
The vote will come four days before an EU summit at which national leaders are expected to give the go-ahead for Serbia and Kosovo to advance to the next stages of their attempts to join the EU.
Those votes of confidence will contrast with the slow progress that Albania has made since it applied for membership in 2009.
At the start of the election campaign, the European Commission criticised the Albanian government for planning to call a referendum to push through reforms demanded by the EU.
Štefan Füle, the European commissioner for enlargement, said that a referendum should not be “a way to bypass the lack of dialogue and constructive co-operation between the government and opposition on the EU agenda”.
The government backed down from its referendum plan, but the incident showed how highly polarised the political system is. It has long been dominated by two parties of roughly equal power headed by bitter rivals, Prime Minister Sali Berisha and opposition leader Edi Rama.
Recent opinion polls suggest that Rama has a lead of around seven percentage points, with his SPA securing the backing of just over 50% of the electorate.
However, projections are complicated by a two-tier electoral system that allocates seats proportionally at a national and regional level.
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In April, Catherine Ashton, the EU’s foreign policy chief, said that the EU viewed it of “crucial importance” that the elections be “in line with international and European standards”.
The early indications are not promising, with claims of vote-buying, pressure on state employees, biased media coverage and poor-quality electoral rolls.
The Central Election Commission has also been hit by a dispute that saw three of its seven members resign in April after parliament replaced one of its members.
The US ambassador, Alexander Arvizu, said that the commission “should be free from interference by any individual, by any institution, and that includes the parliament of Albania”. The commission now has only four members.
Elections in June 2009 produced an impasse. Rama claimed that Berisha’s centre-right Democratic Party of Albania (DPA) had stolen the elections and for a time boycotted parliament.
The situation worsened again in January 2011, when security forces shot dead four opposition demonstrators. Local elections in May 2011 produced a victory for Rama’s Socialist Party (SPA), but Rama again accused the DPA of irregularities.
This political deadlock ensured that Albania’s application for membership remained on ice until 2012, when both parties agreed to reforms demanded by the EU.
That agreement enabled the Commission to recommend that the EU’s member states should open accession talks with Albania, conditional on parliamentary approval of the reforms. Parliament adopted the package on 30 May.