Albanians Prepare for 'Peaceful' Poll

Albanians preparing to go to the polls this Sunday are greatly relieved they have avoided the violence of past elections

Albanians Prepare for 'Peaceful' Poll

Albanians preparing to go to the polls this Sunday are greatly relieved they have avoided the violence of past elections

Friday, 22 June, 2001

There's a joke doing the rounds here. While Israelis and Palestinians kill each other their leaders still meet and shake hands. In Albania, the leaders of the two main political parties won't even share the same platform.

The media vainly struggled to get Fatos Nano, the leader of the Socialist Party, SPA, and Democratic Party, DPA, chief Sali Berisha together ahead of the June 24 elections.

In theory, the two leaders are open to the idea of some sort of exchange of views, but have been vehemently opposed to face-to-face meetings. So far, the furthest the leaders were willing to go was to appear together on Voice of America on June 20, although they refused to share the same studio.

But disagreements between Nano and Berisha have been the exception. The election campaign has been largely free of incident.

Which is good news for people who well remember the violence which accompanied the 1997 elections. For much of the last four weeks, Albanians have been keeping their fingers crossed, hoping that this one passes without violence.

Apart from the odd skirmish, it seems that their wishes have been heeded. From the outset of this election, the two main political parties have organised uneventful rallies in different parts of downtown Tirana. And potentially explosive outdoor gatherings have also passed off peacefully.

Gone is the apprehension on the streets, the boarded up windows, the no-go areas, which were part and parcel of elections four years ago. People have been enjoying the hot summer days and nights largely oblivious to the electioneering. "There's a rally? Who cares?" said shop-owner Algert Bajrami. "Good weather is more important to people than politics."

Even Skenderbeg Square, scene of so many of the rallies which ended up in fights between campaigners, opponents and police over the past decade, is just another sun-drenched piazza with children playing and people out for a stroll.

This time around, political parties are paying more attention to the quality of their campaigning styles, putting more money and effort into presentation of policies - however unrealistic.

The SPA has been campaigning hard on winning the support of younger Albanians. Nano and Prime Minister Ilir Meta are focussing on their record in office, how much progress the country has made in the past four years, especially in revitalising the country's infrastructure.

The Democrats, on the other hand, are trying to attract votes by offering tax cuts, salary increases and pledging to rid the country of poverty. 'For a New Start' is the Democrats' campaign slogan.

Party slogans feature prominently on campaign posters estimated to have cost both parties around seven million US dollars. "If your heart's on the Left, vote for the SPA," declares one, "Bush, Berlusconi and Berisha equal the Union for Victory," reads another.

The country's top pop and folk singers have also come out in force, committing themselves to the various parties. "I have always stated that my political convictions are to the Right," said well-known pop singer Aleksander Gjoka, pledging support for the DPA.

Notwithstanding the general bonhomie of the glitzy rallies and concerts, there have been some echoes of past violence. "Politics returns to its roots," ran the daily Albania's front page after clashes at Socialist rallies in Kavaja and Mamurras. Police, all too aware how things might have developed, reacted nervously, charged in, batons flailing.

The opposition, meanwhile, are claiming that scores of its supporters have been detained during the campaign.

But the head of the OSCE's election monitoring mission, ODIHR, Gerard Stoudman says the campaign has been a marked improvement on the build-up to the October local elections.

Nevertheless, says Stoudman, only when the count is over can anyone be sure that the process has run smoothly.

He is specifically concerned that Socialists and Democrats might seek to boost their share of the vote by disguising themselves as independent candidates. "Independence means that you're independent of political parties - you cannot be half or even a little independent," said the ODIHR director.

Otherwise, it appears that voting day will be calm with a good turn out anticipated.There is even hope that, whatever the result, the loser will concede gracefully.

Llazar Semini is IWPR Project Editor in Albania.

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