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Albania votes in elections amid deep political divide

A deep political divide in the Balkan country is expected to result in tied elections between the ruling party and the opposition coalition.

Albanians went to the polls in Sunday’s parliamentary elections after a heated campaign and violence among rival supporters.

Some 3.6 million qualified voters, including Albanians abroad, will elect 140 lawmakers from around 1,800 candidates.

Voters expressed frustration with the country’s politics and economy, which hopes to start full accession negotiations with the EU later this year.

Sunday’s polls are to be disputed between the ruling socialists and the opposition. The vote is being closely watched by observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and Western embassies.

Leader of the Socialist Party Edi Rama delivers his speech during an election rally.

Who’s running?

Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama seeks a third term for his Socialist Party (PS). His campaign revolved around promises to turn Albania into a “champion” in tourism, energy, agriculture and digital projects.

Rama’s main candidate is Lulzim Basha, of the opposition Democratic Party (PD), who seeks to return to power eight years after losing an election.

Twelve other parties joined in a coalition behind Basha, which accused the government of corruption and links to organized crime.

The PD is promising lower taxes, higher wages and more social financial support.

Pre-election polls showed that the PS was likely to come first.

Albania's opposition Democratic Party leader Lulzim Basha speaks during an election rally.

What is expected of the winning party?

Despite their division, all parties have pledged to carry out the necessary reforms for Albania to fulfill its goal of joining the EU.

The bloc agreed to open accession negotiations last year, but has not yet set a date for the first meeting.

In 2014, Tirana received EU candidate status. Still, little progress has been made due to the coronavirus pandemic and the lack of reforms in the country.

The new government will also face the challenge of dealing with the pandemic and rebuilding homes after a 2019 earthquake that killed 51 people and damaged more than 11,400 properties.

People look at a damaged building after an earthquake in Durres, western Albania

What about pre-election tensions?

The Balkan country is deeply divided, with rival political parties exchanging fiery comments during a bitter election campaign.

On Wednesday, a shootout linked to party activists left one person dead and four injured.

The incident drew criticism from the United States Embassy, ​​which urged the country’s top political leaders to “exercise restraint” and “clearly reject violence” before the elections.

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