Trouble in Tirana
Albania on the brink
May 19th 2011, 15:43 by T.J.
THE great hope was that Albania's local elections on May 8th would deliver a clear result, in one single bound freeing the country from what Albert Rakipi, head of the Albanian Institute for International Studies, described as the “tyranny of the status quo”. It has turned out to be a forlorn hope. Edi Rama (pictured), head of the opposition Socialist Party, has called for a general revolt against the government of Sali Berisha. Today Albania stands on the brink.
The next few days will tell whether cool heads prevail or if the country slips into serious unrest and, potentially, violence. This morning opposition supporters blocked the main Tirana to Durres highway, while protests broke out in Tirana and several other towns.
Much of the background to the election is in a piece I wrote on the day of the poll. I quoted Mr Rakipi comparing the race to run Tirana to the battle of Stalingrad. This quote is now looking rather prescient.
The immediate problem is that there was no clear victor on May 8th. The Socialists took most of Albania's major towns, but Tirana is in question. Such is the level of distrust in the system that the election count was televised. In Tirana 249,184 people voted; Mr Rama, who is running for a fourth term as mayor, won by just ten votes.
Yesterday the central election commission said
there would be a recount it would count voting papers that had been inadvertently placed in the wrong ballot box. This has increased the chances of Lulzim Basha, the candidate of Mr Berisha’s ruling party, taking Tirana. The Socialists claim this is a ruse designed to deny them victory.
The confusion arose because in Tirana there were four ballot boxes, covering the mayoral vote as well as municipal councillors. Some ballot papers inevitably found their way into the wrong boxes. The question of whether they should be considered valid is ambiguous; there are strong arguments on both sides. "Nobody has the right to deny the will of the citizens that exercised their right to vote," says Mr Basha. It seems a reasonable point. On the other hand the electoral code and precedent seem clear: the votes should not be counted.
Albania has been paralysed since a general election in 2009 that the Socialists say was stolen by Mr Berisha. Unsurprisingly the latest development has triggered fury among their ranks. Mr Rama said: “We should do everything with body and soul to stop the government, and the revolt brewing inside every Albanian should spill into the streets.” Gramoz Ruci, a senior party official, said that the Socialists would lead a “popular revolt”.
I asked Erion Veliaj, Mr Rama’s right-hand man, whether a call for an uprising might not be a big risk. A Socialist-led demonstration in
February January went seriously wrong when four people were killed by Republican Guards shooting from inside the government building. Mr Veliaj replied: "[After] forging the paperwork live on television [Mr Berisha] is about to now strip our title and declare his guy the winner in an attempt to throw Edi on the street. You tell me what we are supposed to do".
Huge pressure is being applied to both sides from abroad. Catherine Ashton, the EU’s foreign-policy chief, appealed yesterday for "all political leaders…not to put lives of citizens at risk.” José Manuel Barroso, the president of the European Commission, has cancelled a planned visit to Tirana on Saturday. He presumably intended to congratulate Albanians on their election and to announce that the country’s stalled EU integration process was now back on track. So much for that. As one European diplomat sighed, “20 years after communism, they seem unable to hold elections which meet basic European criteria.”
This morning Mr Veliaj says that a legal appeal against the planned recount in Tirana will be mounted, but with protests and roadblocks under way, things already look dicey. If Mr Basha is declared the winner he will be hard to dislodge, regardless of any appeal—and the same goes for Mr Rama.
As one source from Tirana wrote to me overnight: “It seems we are entering into a new cycle of political conflict.” What a tragedy for Albanians.