June 22, 2013

TIRANA, Albania (AP) — Albania’s president on Saturday warned voters to remember the country’s “ties to the world” during parliamentary elections considered a crucial test of the impoverished nation’s ability to hold fair elections.

Conservative Prime Minister Sali Berisha is seeking a third term but faces a strong challenge from Socialist leader Edi Rama in Sunday’s vote. Both have ambitions of closer ties and eventual membership in the European Union, which is pressing for broad reforms and an improved election record in a country once among the most isolated in the world.

As required by law, political parties ceased their one-month campaign the day before the vote. Though the month-long election contest has been relatively calm — unlike past elections that were frequently marred by violence — the West is concerned that the vote won’t be fair.

The campaign season has been marked by a continuing dispute over the country’s election commission after the ruling Democrats replaced a member and the opposition pulled its members out in response. That means the commission won’t be able to certify election results, potentially leaving the outcome of the vote in doubt.

There have also been reports of civil servants and even school children being pressured to attend pro-government rallies. President Bujar Nishani urged voters to have “Albania and its future” uppermost in their minds.

“(We) should properly consider the importance tomorrow’s vote has for our ties with the world, with which our freedom, prosperity, fate of the present and the future are closely linked.” Some 3.3 million eligible voters will choose among more than 6,900 candidates from 66 political parties who run for 140 parliamentary seats. Some 400 international observers and more than 8,000 local ones will monitor the polls.

It is uncertain when results will be announced.