June 21, 2013

TIRANA, Albania (AP) — Political parties in Albania rallied supporters on their final day of campaigning for Sunday’s general elections, which are considered a test for the Balkan country to shed its history of troubled polls as it seeks closer ties with and eventual membership in the European Union.

Conservative Prime Minister Sali Berisha, 68, is seeking a third term and spoke in front of thousands of backers at his Democratic Party’s main election rally Friday in the capital Tirana. He is facing a strong challenge from 48-year-old Socialist Edi Rama, whose campaign has concentrated on the enduring levels of poverty in the country, which has 3.3 million registered voters.

Rama is leading in most opinion polls, though surveys are not generally considered reliable in Albania. Both he and Berisha have run aggressive campaigns, with negative TV ads and daily party rallies around the country — leaving its cities and towns littered with blue Democrat and purple Socialist flags and pamphlets.

Rama’s Socialists even paid for television ads in neighboring Greece, which has a large Albanian immigrant community. Once one of the world’s hardest-line Communist countries, Albania joined NATO in 2009 but has failed to gain candidate status from the European Union, which is pressing for broader democratic reforms and an improved election record.

“The parliamentary elections in Albania on 23 June represent a crucial test for the country’s democratic institutions and its progress toward the European Union,” Catherine Ashton, the EU’s high representative for foreign affairs, and Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fule said in a recent statement.

Berisha called on his countrymen to get on “the road toward European Albania. “The road toward Europe is the enlightened future for each Albanian. Let’s get together to take the candidate status. With major reforms and efforts during this year we shall make our utmost to launch (membership) negotiations,” Berisha said.

The monthlong election contest has been relatively calm, unlike past elections that were frequently marred by violence. However, there have been reports of civil servants and even school children being pressured to attend pro-government rallies.

The country heads to the polls amid a continuing dispute over the country’s election commission that remains dominated by Berisha allies despite the fracturing of his center-right coalition in mid-April. Berisha’s failure to resolve the dispute over the Central Election Commission drew sharp criticism from the United States and EU.

Rama held his main campaign rally Thursday, addressing thousands of supporters in Tirana’s central Mother Teresa Square. He accused Berisha of running the country with a corrupt elite who had “ruined the economy, society, democracy, and Albanians’ European dream.”

On Friday, Rama took part at a big rally in northern Shkodra city and then by helicopter flew to southern Vlora city, where the Socialists were holding their last rallies at the same time. The Vienna, Austria-based Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe has sent a team of election monitors to Albania.