Amid high tension, Albania holds local elections

Less than four months after opposition anger over contested national elections triggered deadly clashes with police, Albanians vote for local authorities on Sunday — at the close of a campaign marred by bombings and political violence.

Half a dozen candidates have suffered beatings or had their cars or homes targeted in explosions, the latest of which injured an opposition candidate on Thursday, and about 400 international observes will be monitoring Sunday's voting.

Political rivalry in the small Balkan country of 4.2 million is intense, and four opposition Socialist supporters were shot dead when a mass demonstration turned violent in late January. Prime Minister Sali Berisha has repeatedly rejected opposition calls for his governing Democrats to resign over claims of corruption and vote-rigging in the 2009 general elections.

The main focus of the local elections will be the capital Tirana, site of the deadly protest, where Socialist leader and three-times mayor Edi Rama, is running for re-election against former Interior Minister Lulzim Basha. About 3.2 million people are registered to vote for representatives in a total 383 urban and rural districts.

The two main parties' candidates differ little in their platforms, generally pledging to fight poverty and unemployment, improve infrastructure and services, lower municipal taxes and build schools and health centers.

No independent opinion polls were available, but both main parties released forecasts that highly favored their own chances.

It is unclear whether the vote will help restore political tranquility to the former isolationist Communist country, which remains one of Europe's poorest and has enjoyed little political clean sailing over the past 20 years of democratic government.

Aleksander Cipa, editor-in-chief of Shqip daily newspaper, is pessimistic.

"A solution of the political crisis will not come with these local elections," Cipa said. "The opposition could ratchet up the political fight, accelerating efforts for fresh elections."

Rama's Socialists have done little but fight over the past two years — boycotting parliament, going on hunger strike and staging rolling street protests in major cities that came to a head with January's killings. Since then, both main parties have cooled their rhetoric and agreed to tone down political demonstrations. But the uneasy truce has failed to ease passions among the party rank and file.

"The drop in use of harsh language from the leadership did not pass down to the lower levels of the political structures," says independent analyst Skender Minxhozi.

In addition to the three bombings, police have reported several politically motivated stabbings, beatings, and threats around the country, that have led to about a dozen arrests during the monthlong electoral campaign.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which is monitoring Sunday's vote, has appealed for calm.

"(Albanians should) cast the ballots calmly and peacefully and therefore also contribute in rendering tribute to democracy," OSCE Ambassador Eugen Wollfarth said.

The first preliminary results are expected Monday, according to central electoral authorities.