After an acrimonious campaign peppered with insults, accusations of corruption and violent incidents, the ballot, closely watched by Western capitals, went smoothly.
The “process took place in calm and integrity”, declared, after the closing of the polling stations at 19:00 (in Switzerland), Ilirjan Celibashi, the chairman of the Central Election Commission (CEC), calling on the parties to observe the same calm during the counting of the ballots.
Results not yet known
It could take a day or two for the official results to be released as rare polls have predicted the victory of the Socialists under Prime Minister Edi Rama.
Since the end of communism in Albania in the early 1990s, electoral results have been systematically contested and give rise to suspicions of fraud. This poor country, victim of a devastating earthquake at the end of 2019, harshly blames the economic and health cost of the pandemic caused by the coronavirus which killed nearly 2,400 people there.
“Young people must stay”
Many Albanians want better living conditions, the average salary being only 420 euros (464 francs) and young people massively seeking their salvation in emigration to Italy, Germany or the United States. “Young people must not leave, they must stay, there must be employment opportunities,” Berti Jusufaj, a 50-year-old voter, told AFP.
Edi Rama is running for a third term against the center-right Democratic Party allied to a dozen parties from all sides. In ambush, the Socialist Integration Movement (MSI) founded by President Ilir Meta, a fierce opponent of the Prime Minister whose party has often played the role of kingmaker.
Focus on the EU
Brussels has said yes to the opening of accession negotiations with Albania, but without setting a date. All of them promise to bring the necessary changes to fruition, starting with the reform of the judicial system and the fight against organized crime.
Edi Rama accuses his opponents of having the will to overthrow him as their only common point, but promises to withdraw if he does not obtain a parliamentary majority.
He is asking for time to finish the infrastructure projects hampered by the pandemic and to continue to rebuild the thousands of homes destroyed by the earthquake.
This 56-year-old painter is betting on a mass vaccination campaign which should allow the immunization of half a million Albanians at the end of May and the revival of the tourist industry.
Opposite, the opposition promises to support the economy by helping small businesses and accuses the outgoing of all evils.
Edi Rama “has manipulated the results of the previous elections, got hold of the economy with a handful of people, controls all powers and hinders Albania’s European prospects”, asserts Lulzim Basha, 46, the boss of the democrats.
The outgoing head of government denies all these allegations and accuses his opponents of being afraid of the judicial reform underway. Albanian political life is often marked by verbal excess and inflammatory rhetoric.
The campaign had grown tense in the last days, with the death of a socialist activist shot dead in a shootout with Democrats who accused the opposing camp of vote buying. Both the United States and the European Union have called for a speedy investigation.
In case of manipulation of the ballot by the Socialists, the “pitchforks will be there”, had warned President Meta, which earned him a volley of green wood from Washington.
Western ambassadors visited various polling stations on Sunday while the OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) had also deployed observers.