Albania has always been a bit of an outlier within the Western Balkans. Pundits have poured tons of ink covering Yugoslavia’s successor republics, rarely paying attention to the country next door whose problem has been excessive political polarization, not dealing with a legacy of war and ethnic divisions. Since coming to power in 2005 Sali Berisha, leader of the centre-right Democrat Party, has been locked in an uncompromising fight with the opposition Socialists. No election has gone uncontested, with the 2009 general polls and the local vote in 2011 stirring high tensions and parliamentary boycotts. This time it could be different – preliminary results disclosed by the Central Electoral Commission show that the Socialists are leading by a hefty margin. Their leader Edi Rama, Berisha’s archrival, claims that his opposition coalition won 80 seats (out of 140 in total) - the coalition also includes includes Ilir Meta, an ex-foreign minister whose Movement for Socialist Integration (LSI) was formerly allied with the Democrats. The lead matters immensely as it makes it very difficult for Berisha to proclaim a victory and try to tip the balance using all kinds of institutional gimmicks. Let’s hope he plays responsibly and surrenders power in a democratic manner (last time he did so was in 1997 – after a popular rebellion led to a virtual state collapse).
The EU has a reason to be cautiously optimistic. It has singled out the smooth conduct of the elections as a chief precondition for granting Albania long overdue candidate status (the formal application was launched back in 2009). The run-up to the vote last Sunday was hardly encouraging for the election observers. Putting together a Central Elections Commission was a headache. Voting was marred by the murder of an opposition activist. The coming days will be of crucial importance for Albania’s democratic development. EU officials should do their utmost to convince Berisha to step down. Reportedly, he has already conceded a loss in a private conversation with centre-right MEP Eduard Kukan, leader of the European Parliament’s observer mission. With Croatia set to join the Union on 1 July, neighbouring Montenegro negotiating its accession as of last year and Serbia standing a good chance to start talks too (let’s see what the EU Council this week resolves), it is in Albania’s interest not to lag behind. As elsewhere in the region, Brussels remains the key engine for governance reform. This election could well be the game changer for the country’s ambitions which have not been scathed by crisis in key economic partners as Greece and Italy (up to a third of Albania’s labour force is abroad, mostly in those two southern member-states). If everything goes right it will be a small victory for the EU and its enlargement policy too.
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