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Unrealistic Albanian Pledges

Wild and unrealistic promises have marred campaigning for this Sunday's municipal elections in Albania.

Most Albanian politicians have failed to approach Sunday's local elections as a sober test of the country's democratic maturity.

Campaigning throughout September gives the impression of a dress rehearsal for next year's general elections, with political leaders on all sides making wild and unrealistic promises.

Some of the irresponsible commitments would require the state budget allocation for municipal authorities to treble, or even quadruple.

Albanian Prime Minister Ilir Meta, for example, recently pledged to complete a new road between the north eastern town of Kukes and the capital Tirana which would half travel time.

Meta failed to explain where the government would raise the necessary money for the project, or why the completion of the road should be linked to the election of his Socialist Party candidate in Kukes. The prime minister refused to confirm the government would carry out the road scheme if the opposition candidate won.

Meanwhile, the opposition Democratic Party led by former president Sali Berisha, has made outlandish commitments on increasing pensions and salaries, creating jobs and attracting foreign investment.

The party has failed to explain how the newly elected local officials would accomplish these ambitious projects, when they have no authority to enforce such policies.

Sunday's poll is something of a litmus test for the Socialist-led coalition government, elected in 1997 after the anarchy brought on by the collapse of the fraudulent pyramid schemes in July of that year.

The Socialists are eager to prove that contrary to the general perception in the country, they enjoy broad support. The favoured tactic appears to be making promises they clearly will not be able to keep.

Meanwhile the government's failures to address many of the country's problems during its three years in office are placed squarely at the door of the opposition.

Berisha's Democratic Party, meanwhile, has refused to accept the 1997 general election result and has boycotted the parliament for most of the last three years.

The local election campaign has for the most part been peaceful. Although there have been a few shooting incidents, no one has been killed or badly wounded. The improved law and order situation has enabled candidates to travel relatively freely throughout the country, even into areas controlled by rival political or clan leaders.

Also, the increased number of private media outlets has broken the virtual information monopoly enjoyed by state-controlled television and radio.

But Albania's democratic culture remains fragile and immature. Both the government and the opposition still demonstrate some disdain for the independence of institutions. Berisha has accused to government of manipulating electoral rolls and membership of the electoral commission. The government denies both accusations.

Political leaders appear unwilling to move away from mud-slinging, unrealisable promises, and a refusal to accept electoral defeat.

"What is very important to see for the first time in Albania is whether the defeated party will accept defeat," said OSCE mission chief Geert-Hinrich Ahrens. "This would be a very large step forward in this country."

Candidates need to prove they are genuinely committed to improving the lot of the voters and deserve to be their representatives. The catalogue of ridiculous campaign promises indicates candidates for this election have failed that test.

Sokol Rama is editor of Illyria, an Albanian-American newspaper

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