Albanians vote with no trouble after fears of poll clashes

International

Albanian prime minister Edi Rama thanks his supporters during the last election rally in Vlora, southern Albania, Friday, June 28, 2019. Abania’s municipal elections don’t normally provoke much interest beyond the country’s border, but the holding of this weekend’s vote — or failure to do so — appears decisive for the tiny Western Balkan country in its bid to start full membership negotiations with the European Union. (AP Photo/Visar Kryeziu)

TIRANA, Albania (AP) — Voters cast ballots without disruption Sunday in Albania, where opposition leaders had threatened to interfere with municipal elections they boycotted as part of an anti-government protest campaign that earlier produced injuries and arrests.

Albanian President Ilir Meta moved to cancel the elections several weeks ago, saying they would be undemocratic without the opposition’s participation. Prime Minister Edi Rama said he wouldn’t bow to political demands and ordered the elections held.

The elections were for mayors, local council members and other authorities to run 61 districts across Albania for the next four years. Polls closed at more than 5,400 polling stations at 7 p.m. local time and ballot boxes were being transferred elsewhere for counting.

Both the prime minister and the leader of the opposition claimed a successful day for their parties.

“My hand is extended (for dialogue),” Rama said, explaining that meant the opposition should stop speaking badly of Albania abroad and instead work to persuade the European Union to agree to the country’s request to open membership negotiations.

Lulzim Basha, leader of the center-right Democratic Party, interpreted low voter turnout Sunday as a triumph for the opposition. Preliminary turnout was 21.6%, compared to 48% four years ago.

“This process (of elections) is anti-constitutional and illegal,” Basha claimed.

Rama’s Socialists Party was expected to receive the most votes by a significant margin. Socialist candidates were the only ones on the ballot in 35 of the 61 districts. The party’s competition in the rest was from smaller leftist and center-right parties.

“This day confirms that no one can play with the people … and who dares take sovereignty from the people finds no other end but a failing and a shameful one,” the prime minister said at a polling place in Surrel, a village near the capital of Tirana, where he cast his ballot.

Preliminary results are expected Monday.

Opposition lawmakers relinquished their seats in parliament and led protests since mid-February, accusing the government of corruption and vote-rigging in previous elections. Rama and his party deny the allegations.

The leader of the main opposition Democratic Party, Lulzim Basha, called on Albanians to shun the local elections and said late Saturday the party would hold non-violent protests Sunday. Police said election day protests were not allowed.

Small groups of opposition supporters nonetheless rallied in front of some polling stations in Tirana and a nearby town, shouting “Rama go!” However, the anticipated clashes that were feared days earlier did not materialize.

“It was a day with no tears, no joy,” independent analyst Lutfi Dervishi said. Beyond choosing local government representatives, the elections “were a test to see whether the political class is mature enough not to solve its political disagreements through violence.”

After the months of opposition-led protests, Dervishi said the election had made for “the quietest day for the 2019 year, at least in Tirana.”

Thousands of police officers guarded polling stations while voting was underway. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights said it was sending 174 election observers, who will give their preliminary findings on Monday.

Audrey Glover, head of the international monitoring mission, found the situation at a Tirana polling station “not conducive to observing.”

Holding a free and fair election is considered key for the launch of EU membership talks for the tiny Western Balkan country, already a NATO member.

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