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Albania holds key parliamentary election

Albania holds key parliamentary election

Tirana, June 27 NOA/ - Sunday's vote in the former communist state will be closely monitored by some 400 foreign observers, especially since it is considered a key test for Albania's European Union membership bid.

Ahead of Albania's parliamentary elections, both US and EU diplomats urged the small Balkan state to hold fair elections and clear the path for closer links with the West.

"Anything less than that would be a step back," the American ambassador to Tirana John Withers warned.

"In all the previous elections, the required standards were not met. The manipulating practices of the past should not be repeated."

Campaign marred by violence

Sweden, which assumes the rotating EU presidency on July 1, has said that Albania's EU membership would have better prospects if the poll goes smoothly. However, the campaign has already been marred by violence with two election-related deaths.

There is also a major administrative problem affecting more than 250,000 voters who lack modern passports or identity cards.

This has led to complaints by the opposition which says that more 10 percent of Albanians will be denied their right to vote on Sunday because they lack proper identification.

Opinion polls suggest that the ruling bloc of conservative Prime Minister Sali Berisha's Democratic Party has a slight lead on the opposition rivals led by the Tirana Mayor Edi Rama's Socialists.

Tight race expected

Berisha has been the country's dominant political figure since the fall of Communism fall in 1991. The 65 year old has campaigned with promises of quick EU accession and improving the infrastructure and living conditions.

Edi Rama, who appears to be more popular among Albania's younger voters, has promised to get rid of what he describes as Berisha's nepotist structures in the administration, pledging to do more for Albania's poor.

With analysts predicting a close race, it might well be the smaller players - the Socialist Movement for Integration (LSI) and the Christian Democrats - that tip the scales in the final election outcome.

Some 3.1 million Albanians are eligible to vote on Sunday. They will cast ballots for 140 legislators, at least 30 per cent of whom must be women. The vote will be monitored by some 400 foreign and 2,500 election observers.