Albanians vote in crucial test for EU membership hopes - Emirates24|7

Albanians vote in crucial test for EU membership hopes

Pic: Reuters

Albanians vote in a hotly fought parliamentary election on Sunday with the ruling Socialists and rival Democrats both setting their sights on an outright majority to push through judicial reforms vital for future EU membership.

Sunday's race pits incumbent Socialist Prime Minister Edi Rama against the centre-right Democratic Party of Lulzim Basha, neither of whom managed to win the 70 seats needed for a parliamentary majority in the elections of 2013 or 2009.

The voting is also a test of the country's democratic credentials and will be watched closely by Western observers keen to see it leave behind a history of election irregularities and violence.

Campaigning has been heated but mainly peaceful following a pact by the two main rivals that sought to guarantee a trouble-free election.

Both the main parties want to ditch the Socialist Integration Movement (SIM) of president-elect Ilir Meta, which has gained the role of king-maker by propping up their respective governments for the last eight years.

Meta and Rama have been at odds since late 2016 due to disputes over policy, and their power struggle has set the tone for the premier's campaigning.

"The Socialists want your vote to govern alone because we want to build a state of the rule of law," Rama, a former mayor of Tirana, told supporters on Friday in his seaside constituency of Vlore. "The smaller parties seek benefits, not values."

FACADES AND PALM TREES

Opinion polls have given Rama's Socialists the edge over the Democrats, but it is not clear whether he could garner enough support to win an outright majority during a second term.

Whatever the outcome of Sunday's election, the two frontrunners have said they will jointly ask the European Union to advance towards the NATO-member country's accession. They have not said whether they might rule together in coalition.

Since taking office, the Socialists have managed to improve tax collection and boost the performance of the electricity sector. Economic growth accelerated to 3.45 percent last year, compared with 0.97 percent in 2013.

But they failed to fulfil promises to create 300,000 new jobs and secure free health care for everyone aged over 40. The country's international reputation was tarnished by data showing Albania had become Europe's biggest open-air cannabis producer.

Basha, a foreign-educated former transport and interior minister, accuses Rama of glossing over the country's problems with "facades and palm trees" and says he has neglected the economy.

"It is time we develop our economy, otherwise we will miss the chance. Our plan is similar to that of developed European countries. We would bring investments and put Albania to work," Basha told supporters at his final rally in Tirana on Friday.

He has vowed to cut taxes to spur brisker economic growth and crack down on corruption.

Implementing a sweeping judicial reform aimed at rooting out widespread graft will be a top priority for the next government and is seen as crucial for the country to progress towards membership of the European Union.

Albanian proponents of EU membership hope the country will be able to join the bloc within a decade. Rama said last month the Balkan country could get a green light for formal talks to start at the end of this year.

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