Page last updated at 14:22 GMT, Saturday, 27 June 2009 15:22 UK

Corruption key to Albania poll

Ragip Luta
BBC Albanian

democratic party rally, 26 june
The Democratic party is vying to stay in power

The first generation of Albanians born after the collapse of Communism in December 1990 vote in a general election on Sunday.

The vote is seen as a major test of Albania's progress towards future integration with the European Union.

Three million registered electors will vote in what has turned essentially into a contest between two candidates: Sali Berisha, the current prime minister and head of the Democratic Party; and the popular mayor of Tirana, Edi Rama, who leads the opposition Socialist Party.

Mr Berisha leads the Alliance for Change, which consists of 17 parties.

Mr Rama's Union for Change consists of five parties.

Sali Berisha (left) and Edi Rama (right) are front runners for the top job
Both main candidates promise change and integration

The names of the major coalitions suggest both share common goals: change and integration.

Both Mr Berisha and Mr Rama promise more jobs, better living standards, new infrastructure and a tougher fight against corruption.

Mr Berisha is credited with much of the success in introducing democracy to Albania.

A 65-year-old cardiologist, he lists Albania's membership of Nato, along with the Stabilisation and Association Agreement with the EU, as his major achievements.

He boasts of the infrastructure projects carried out by his government, especially road-building, which has cut travel times between Tirana and the Kosovan capital, Pristina, by half.

Mr Berisha says that if he is re-elected, one of his first objectives will be to get visa-free travel for Albanians in the EU.

Beyond politics

The opposition also claims some of the credit for Albania's integration with Western institutions.

Four coalitions contesting vote
Proportional representation system
Parliament has 140 seats
Four year mandate

Mr Rama, who is 45, is a former artist and basketball player.

He is currently serving his third term as mayor of Tirana and he promises to replicate the success he has had there across the country.

He has asked the electorate, in his own words, to vote beyond party politics, and to end the constant flip-flopping between governments of the left and right that has been seen in Albania since the introduction of multi-party democracy.

Mr Rama says that a government that allowed the so-called Gerdec tragedy to happen, cannot be trusted with another term in office.

The accident, which killed 26 people, involved a huge explosion at an ammunition depot near Tirana last March.

The minister of defence, who resigned after the explosion, now faces a court case for abuse of power.

Fire from munitions dump explosions burns overnight in Albania
Some blame an ammunition depot blast on the government

The Socialists accuse the authorities of corruption over the subcontracting of decommissioning obsolete ammunition to private companies.

They also accuse the government of embezzling funds that were meant to be spent on infrastructure projects.

Corruption is a huge problem in Albania and accusations haunt Mr Rama's campaign.

In April parliament established a commission to investigate allegations of corruption and mismanagement in his own municipality.

The allegations relate to the awarding of building licences.

Election violence

Identity cards have emerged as one of the most controversial issues as voting day draws near.

The opposition estimates that at least 10% of voters do not have the required documents to vote.

The interior ministry insists that all eligible voters will receive the document in time.

However, the opposition says that the whole process has been delayed, and has threatened to bring charges against the Interior Ministry for what it calls false information and manipulation.

The elections are being closely scrutinised by international monitoring groups.

Over 400 international observers are expected to monitor the ballot.

Monitoring groups said the 2005 parliamentary elections and local elections in 2007, only partly met international standards.

They accused the main political parties of putting their own narrow interests above the overall stability and credibility of the electoral process.

In its latest assessment, the OSCE described the political environment as mostly calm, but has pointed to rising tensions.

One activist from the Democratic Party was shot dead by a Socialist Party activist in a village near Tirana two weeks ago. They had argued over the positioning of political posters.

In separate incidents, a Socialist Party MP was killed in front of his house at the beginning of May, before the election campaign began. And the chairman of a regional branch of the Christian Democratic Party was blown up in his car last week.

Although these deaths have not been proven to be politically motivated previous elections in Albania have been marred by serious violence.

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