Macedonia: Ex-Rebel Bullish About Poll Prospects

After the collapse of attempts to unite ethnic Albanian parties under one roof, a popular former rebel chief decides to go it alone in forthcoming elections.

Macedonia: Ex-Rebel Bullish About Poll Prospects

After the collapse of attempts to unite ethnic Albanian parties under one roof, a popular former rebel chief decides to go it alone in forthcoming elections.

Ex-guerrilla chief Ali Ahmeti is to create his own party to contest upcoming elections, but his lack of political experience and the limited time available to prepare for the ballot may frustrate his hopes of defeating his rivals.

Ahmeti is to announce the formation of his own party next Wednesday, after failing to unite Albanian politicians in Macedonia under one umbrella.

There had been hopes that an Albanian coordinating council, set up in January, might evolve into a coherent party, but it fell victim to the usual factional disputes and personal rivalries.

These tensions reached boiling point after a mysterious shooting incident on April 3 at the Dora restaurant in Tetovo, western Macedonia, one of the headquarters of the Democratic Party of Albanians, DPA, and favourite hangout of its vice-president, Menduh Thaci.

After members of the Party for Democratic Prosperity, PPD, and National Democratic Party, NDP, suggested the incident highlighted criminal elements within the DPA,

Thaci responded with a series of counter-accusations that led to the withdrawal of his party from the council in early April.

Thaci then challenged Ahmeti, disputing his leading role in the umbrella organisation. "Who gave him the mandate to lead the council?" he asked. Thaci then went for his own party president, claiming he had stronger support and that if his backers wanted him to become leader he would " gladly take up the offer".

After failing to convince the various Albanian parties to unite under the coordinating council, Ahmeti decided to go it alone. He said his party would be committed to the peace process, the full implementation of the Ohrid Agreement, which ended last year's Albanian insurrection, and the integration of Macedonia into Europe.

"We need people with qualities and values more than ever," Ahmeti said, holding a cigarette in his hands, his eyes focused on a painting that hangs in his office in Mala Recica, a village next to Tetovo.

Ahmeti is convinced the coordinating council was a noble idea to unify Albanians and is philosophical about its failure: he sees it as a lost battle but says he's getting ready to win the war.

The former rebel chief's decision to forge ahead on his own could lead to new Albanian coalitions. Abdurrahman Aliti, newly elected leader of the PDP, offered Ahmeti the leadership of a new grouping, uniting the PDP and NDP. And the leader of the DPA, Arben Xhaferi, has said that his party is also prepared to enter into a similar alliance.

Ahmeti confirmed he had received offers from the two parties but made no promises. "Ahmeti doesn't want to reveal his hand," said Edward Joseph, Macedonia Project director at the International Crisis Group think-tank.

For now, Ahmeti is concentrating on registering his party and organising its infrastructure. And he is bullish about beating his rivals in general elections less than four months away.

His confidence stems from a conviction that he remains extremely popular. He cites a recent visit to an unnamed village, where he claimed the entire population rushed out to greet him within minutes of his arrival. "We have lots of support from Struga [in the south] to Kumanovo [in the north]," he said.

But observers believe he doesn't have sufficient political experience and enough time to stand much of a chance of doing well in the polls. "He has just entered the political waters and now we have to see if he can swim," said on western diplomat. Another commented wryly that it might prove difficult for Ahmeti to become part of political life, as he appeared to spend most of his time in Shipkovica and Recica, two small villages near his Tetovo base.

Another factor that might stymie Ahmeti's electoral prospects is that he has made it clear he will not form alliances with corrupt Albanian politicians who, he says, have "misused the trust of the people". Many analysts believe that this strategy rules out electoral cooperation with Xhaferi, owing to the widespread allegations of corruption swirling round the DPA and Thaci in particular.

Agim Fetahu is IWPR Macedonia Project Director.

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