The Trouble with Democracy: Albania's Worrisome Vote

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Gent Shkullaku / AFP / Getty Images

Albanian opposition lawmakers attempt to push through a police line to get to the Central Election Commission in Tirana to protest against the delay in the release of results from recent local elections, on May 18, 2011.

While much of the world can only dream of democracy, other places have trouble making it work. Tiny Albania emerged from communist dictatorship in 1990 only to tumble into a rough world of gangsters, fraudulent financial machinations and incompetent governance, exacerbated by lawless capitalism and devil-may-care politics. In 1997, popular fury over rigged ballots as well as a plague of failed Ponzi schemes led to a massive uprising that saw army warehouses looted and 1,500 people dead. The United Nations had to authorize Italian troops to intervene to restore order.

Things are looking dicey again in the capital Tirana. Just about a week ago, on May 14, the opposition Socialist Party was ecstatic about a razor-thin victory in the race for mayor of Tirana. A quarter million votes had been cast and while the count was excruciatingly close, preliminary results showed incumbent Edi Rama ahead. His margin: 10 votes.

Rama also happens to be the head of the Socialist Party and the implacable foe of Prime Minister Sali Berisha, head of the ruling Democratic Party. Berisha has been around for a while. He was President of Albania in the middle of the Ponzi uprising in 1997 and, after the U.N. stepped in, he was forced to step down. Out of power for eight years, he returned as Prime Minister in 2005, ousting the Socialists from rule. Rama, 47, took over as Socialist leader at that time.

So, last week, even as the Socialists were about to cheer, Berisha demanded a recount of the mayoral vote and, lo, the current, still incomplete tally gives Berisha's candidate Lulzim Basha a lead of 60 votes. Rama and his party were incensed. He has served three terms as mayor of Tirana and was considered extremely popular, hence the surprise of some at the closeness of the vote in the capital. The Socialists also feel further aggrieved: when they lost the general elections two years ago, Rama cried foul but the country's courts chose not to take up his complaint. But international observers reported no anomalies in the latest Tirana polls. Berisha's party had a more vigorous get-out-the-vote campaign; and there may have been some frustration over Rama's focus on his Socialist party leadership at the expense of his mayoral duties.

The drama had been keyed-up four-months earlier. On Jan. 21, police clashed with Socialist-led protesters in an incident that left four demonstators dead and scores injured. Berisha accused Rama of an attempted coup. Rama retorted that the deaths were political murder. Many Albanians saw the local elections this month as a referendum on which politician was telling the truth. In the end, the Socialists carried many races for mayor, while the Democrats and their allies carried most municipal councils. International observes said the conduct of the elections was largely peaceful, but that the political climate was highly charged. Now, it has come down to figuring out whether Rama will keep his own office.

The atmosphere in Tirana is tense, to say the least. The election board, controlled by the ruling Democratic Party, has been shielded by a cordon policemen, facing off against hundreds of Socialists supporters in the street. Across the country, Socialist demonstrators burned tires and cars as well as blocked roads. Two Rama supporters had been beaten by the police, according to the Socialists; the government claims dozen of police have been injured in scuffles with the protesters.

European Commission head José Manuel Barroso cancelled a visit to Albania on Friday, citing the election troubles. European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton asked for tempers to cool, and that "all political leaders carry a particular responsibility not to put lives of citizens at risk." Albania had been fancying an invitation to begin membership talks with the European Union towards the end of the year. The current political showdown is unlikely to improve its chances of joining the E.U.