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Page last updated at 22:38 GMT, Friday, 14 May 2010 23:38 UK

Tens of thousands attend Albania election protest

By Mark Lowen
BBC Balkans correspondent

Protesters in Tirana (14 May 2010)
This was the second huge protest in Tirana in the space of two weeks

Tens of thousands of people have protested in Albania's capital, Tirana, about last year's election, which they claim was rigged.

They came out in support of Socialist Party activists who have been on hunger strike for two weeks outside the office of Prime Minister Sali Berisha.

Mr Berisha's Democrats won a narrow victory last June, but the protesters want the ballot boxes reopened.

So far the government has rejected the opposition's demands.

EU concern

This is the second huge demonstration in Tirana in the space of two weeks. The last protest drew tens of thousands and this one appears to be of a similar scale.

Socialist-led opposition activists marched through the streets of the capital with banners and slogans calling for the government to reopen the ballot boxes from last June's general election, which they believe was fraudulently won by the Democratic Party.

Tents outside the prime minister's office in Tirana, where hunger strikers are camped (12 May 2010)
Hunger strikers have set up camp outside the prime minister's office

But the government says tampering with the ballot boxes would be unconstitutional and are standing firm.

Following the protest a fortnight ago, around 200 Socialist Party members began a hunger strike directly beneath the office of Mr Berisha.

It is a very visible and serious escalation of the stand-off, with several strikers having now been hospitalised.

This crisis, which involved a several-months long boycott of parliament by the Socialists, has paralysed Albanian politics and is damaging the country's bid for European Union membership.

Brussels is openly voicing its concern and several bodies, including the Council of Europe, are attempting to mediate between the Democrats and Socialists.

But with both sides refusing to budge, it is difficult to see how the deadlock can be broken.

Since the fall of communism in 1991, Albania has never held an election that has met all international standards.

Last year's vote was deemed the best yet, but was still criticised by the observer mission.

Albania is already one of Europe's poorest countries and is struggling to prove it has made the transition to fully-functioning democracy - a crucial goal if it is to fulfil its hopes of EU integration.



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