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Albania to vote in crucial polls determining its EU future

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

Albanians go to the polls on Sunday for a crucial vote that could determine whether one of Europe's poorest country has a chance of joining the European Union in the foreseeable future.

Having failed to deliver clean elections since the fall of communism two decades ago, Albania desperately needs to prove that it is able to hold fair polls that meet international standards if it is to have a shot at joining the bloc.

But even in the run-up to the elections, accusations of vote-buying and voter roll irregularities are already flying, sparking fears of a repeat of the 2009 polls which descended into a political crisis.

And international observers are warning that democratic elections are compromised as the agency tasked with certifying the vote is paralysed by a dispute.

Brussels, which has twice rejected Tirana's EU membership application, said the vote "represents a crucial test for the country's democratic institutions and its progress towards the European Union".

"It is the joint responsibility of all Albanian political leaders... to create conditions for election results to be accepted by all," EU Foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fuelle said in a joint statement ahead of the vote.

Brussels would "watch everything very closely," Ettore Sequi, head of the EU mission in Tirana, told AFP.

Since the collapse of Enver Hoxha's communist regime in 1990, polls in the country have been marred by violence and allegations of vote-fixing.

The last general elections in 2009 ended up with a dispute between Prime Minister Sali Berisha's ruling centre-right Democrats and the centre-left Socialists led by Edi Rama.

The opposition boycotted parliament for months, crippling legislative progress in the country.

And once again, as Albania's 3.2 million voters gear up to pick lawmakers for the 140-seat assembly, the electoral system appears to be struggling to meet international standards.

It emerged that the Central Electoral Commission -- the agency tasked with certifying the vote -- would be unable to carry out its mission because it has lost three members over a dispute.

US ambassador Alexander Arvizu warned that: "In order to have a good election, you need a functioning commission, not the one based on a charade."

The Council of Europe said "democratic elections are compromised as the commission would not be seen by Albanians as an impartial body."

Opposition leader Rama also alleges irregularities in the voters' register and attempts by the ruling Democrats to buy voters.

"I strongly hope that peoples' will would not be manipulated... but these elections are not like ones that a NATO or EU member country should have," Rama said.

Berisha -- who is seeking his third term as prime minister -- dismissed Rama's claims as an "opposition's attempt to justify in advance its next electoral defeat".

The prime minister's Democrats have pledged new investments while accelerating Albania's path towards the EU.

Berisha has also promised a six percent hike in wages and pensions to come into effect after the election.

Berisha, 69, said he wants "another four years, the most ambitious in my life, (in order) to realise the dream of Albania joining EU."

Voters such as 37-year old teacher Eduart Bimi, are hoping that the electoral "promises of more employment and investments" would be kept.

Analysts have predicted a tight race between Berisha's and Rama's parties.

Some 3,000 observers will monitor the elections, while first unofficial results are expected by Monday.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130621/albania-vote-crucial-polls-determining-its-eu-future