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Albanian Ballot Sparks Political Storm
The opposition is threatening to boycott local elections later this year because of a disagreement over the make-up of a commission overseeing the ballot.
Officials from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, OSCE, have stepped in to try to resolve the dispute, fearing it may provoke political instability.
The issue has already resulted in bitter wrangling between the ruling Socialists and the opposition Democratic Party of former president Sali Berisha.
The opposition says it will boycott the poll unless its representation on the seven-member Central Election Commission (KQZ) is increased. At present, the constitution permits it to appoint one person to the body.
Berisha has warned that the commission as it stands is "a political instrument which will undermine a free vote".
The Democratic Party - which is demanding new general elections - holds weekly rallies in Tirana and other cities, calling the current government "a bunch of thieves and criminals".
In a conciliatory move, the Socialists last month offered the opposition half the seats on local election commissions. The offer was turned down.
The OSCE, which three years ago helped to end the anarchy that followed the collapse of pyramid investment schemes in which many Albanians lost their life savings, is now attempting to resolve the dispute.
After failing to reach an agreement between the politicians, it has started a new round of talks with legal experts from parliamentary parties.
Under the constitution, two members of the KQZ are appointed by the president; three by a council of judges and lawyers; and two by parliament - with one of these selected by the opposition.
The chairman of the Republican Party, Fatmir Mediu, has said, "The opposition is ready to enter the electoral process [if the governing coalition agrees to] build a commission that can guarantee a free vote, based on the consensus that [membership] will be shared."
The OSCE has ruled out constitutional changes for the time being, proposing instead that members of the commission are politically impartial figures. "We think this solution is a good compromise," said OSCE spokesman Giovanni Porta.
The Parliamentary Speaker, Skender Gjinushi, has in the past suggested such a solution may be the way forward. "The KQZ must not become a body composed of representatives of political parties but a permanent institutions made up of experts," he said recently.
Another solution proposed by a Socialist Party official is to devolve power from the KQZ to the local commissions where the opposition parties are better represented. Whether or not this option will satisfy the Democratic Party remains to be seen.
Foreign observers are meanwhile concerned that prolonged discussions over the KQZ are delaying the whole electoral process. The International Friends of Albania, a group of Western governments assisting the country's efforts to build democracy, has urged Albanian political parties to end their feuding so that the vote can go ahead in the autumn.
"This year's local elections must avoid the flaws and criticisms of previous electoral processes," the group said in a statement after a summit last month in Vienna.
International officials fear that Albania may face political instability if this latest dispute in the country's rough-and-tumble political life is not resolved soon.
The US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, recently urged Albanian politicians to stop their squabbling for the good of the country. "Competition over political campaigns is a good thing, but only within a framework that enables democracy to triumph even if your own party must wait another day," she told the Tirana parliament.
In the past, political parties here have shown little inclination to wait for "another day".
The Socialists boycotted the general election in May 1996, won by the Democratic Party. A year later, the Democrats refused to recognise the results of another ballot - called to bring an end to an armed insurgency - in which a Socialist-led coalition was victorious.
Some hope that such political instability may be curbed through Albania's involvement in the Stability Pact. The aim of the initiative, proposed by the United States and 40 other countries, is two-fold. To improve relations between the countries of southeast Europe and help them move towards democracy and develop their economies.
Albright called on Albania to play a leading role in the region. And she will have been encouraged last week when the Foreign Minister, Paskal Milo, urged Albanian guerrillas in southern Serbia not to provoke a new conflict. He said he feared simmering tensions in the Presevo Valley might "sabotage" the strained Kosovo peace process.
"The Albanian government does not agree with those extremist nationalistic circles that might be acting in Presevo, Medveda and Bujanovac," he said. "They care more about their own careers than the true interests of Albanians there."
Merita Ilo is a journalist in Tirana
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