After period of tension, Albania elects mayors

by Reuters
Sunday, 8 May 2011 10:10 GMT

* Albania electing mayors after tense campaign

* Polls first test of support in two years

* EU wants to see dialogue, free and fair vote

By Benet Koleka

TIRANA, May 8 (Reuters) - Albanians began voting on Sunday in local elections the opposition are calling a referendum on the national government and the European Union says must be free and fair if the country is to be considered for membership.

Democracy is just 20 years old in Albania, which is still suffering post-Communist growing pains. Four people were shot dead in January when anti-government protests turned violent.

The opposition Socialists have refused to accept the result of the 2009 election that gave Prime Minister Sali Berisha a second four-year term and accuse his government of corruption.

Sunday's vote is the first test of support for Berisha's government since the election. Campaigning for the mayoral elections has been marred by explosions and scuffles.

"Elections on May 8 will not go down in political memory because of the quality of the programmes or the winners' names, but the evaluation of their standards and their democratic product," President Bamir Topi said in a televised address.

Berisha said meeting EU election standards was essential for Albania's progress towards joining the bloc.

The European Union rejected Albania's application to become a candidate for membership last November. It has made clear the vote must be free and fair if Albania, a NATO-member, wants to be considered for candidate status by the end of this year.

The European Union has also told Albania's feuding political parties they must negotiate to end the row over the 2009 election that is holding up legislation in parliament.

An EU team will visit Albania in late May.

The opposition Socialist Party, led by Tirana Mayor Edi Rama, who is running for a fourth term, is appealing to voters to use Sunday's ballot to express discontent with the national government that it calls corrupt and incompetent.

Rising fuel and food prices, and some tax increases, could influence voters, although the economy has continued to grow throughout the global economic crisis.

Police have deployed about 7,000 officers near the 4,891 polling stations, reinforcing their presence in areas near Tirana which saw riots between supporters of the main parties.

Of the 63 politically related incidents during the campaign, police say three explosions, which wounded one person, and the burning of a vehicle were the most serious. There have also been stabbings and shoot-outs, although no one was killed.

Berisha says Sunday's results will not influence the future of the government or prompt an early parliamentary election.

"Albania cannot miss the opportunity to demonstrate that it is conducting elections in line with European and international standards," EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fuele said. (Editing by Janet Lawrence)

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