Albania heads to polls after peaceful campaign

Associated Press

TIRANA, Albania (AP) — Political parties in Albania entered their final day of campaigning for Sunday's general elections, considered a test for the Balkan country to shed its history of troubled campaigns as it seeks closer ties and eventual membership in the European Union.

Conservative Prime Minister Sali Berisha, 68, is seeking a third term and will speak 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 that has 3.3 million registered voters.

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.

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 an ongoing 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.

The Vienna, Austria-based Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe has sent a team of election monitors to Albania.