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Text by News Wires

Latest update : 2013-06-23

An opposition activist was killed and a politician wounded in a shooting in Albania on Sunday as voters headed to the polls as part of an election already marred by claims of vote-buying and electoral roll irregularities.

An opposition activist was killed in an apparently politically motivated shooting in Albania on Sunday during a crucial election that could determine whether one of Europe's poorest countries has a chance of joining the EU.

The shootout in the northern town of Lac "might be related to the vote," police spokeswoman Alma Katragjini told AFP, declining to give further information about the incident.

The dead man was identified as a 53-year old activist with the Socialist-led coalition of former Tirana mayor Edi Rama, while among three people wounded was a candidate from the ruling Democratic party of conservative Prime Minister Sali Berisha.

Rama -- whose coalition has a slight edge in the election race according to analysts -- branded the shooting a "serious political incident... aimed at intimidating the voters."

"Berisha should take responsibility... and pay for it," the 48-year-old Rama told reporters after rushing to Lac.

Accusations of vote-buying and electoral roll irregularities have been flying between the rivals, raising concerns of a repeat of the 2009 polls which triggered months of political turmoil and government paralysis.

Around 6,000 police were on duty on Sunday to try to keep the peace.

Berisha, seeking his third mandate to lead the Muslim majority nation after eight years in power, vowed that "the will of citizens shall be respected" at the polls.

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 EU.

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

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".

But as Albania's 3.2 million voters were choosing lawmakers for the 140-seat assembly, the electoral system appeared to be struggling to meet international standards.

The electoral commission -- the agency tasked with certifying the vote -- remains paralysed, with no progress made in efforts to replace three of its seven members who quit in April over a dispute between the government and the opposition.

Eugen Wollfarth, head of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) mission in Tirana, called on politicians to "consider what is best for the country," which became a NATO member in 2009.

A Western diplomat warned of a "great risk the results would be contested, either by the outgoing coalition or by the opposition".

Both Rama and Berisha have pledged to improve living standards in the country where many, especially in the poor mountainous north, depend heavily on financial aid sent by an estimated 1.5 million countrymen living in western Europe and the United States.

Berisha, a 69-year old cardiologist, has been campaigning on the promise of new investments, but also a six percent hike in wages and pensions to come into effect after the election.

Rama, a Paris-schooled painter, insisted on rooting out widespread corruption in Albania, which ranked 113th of 174 countries on graft watchdog Transparency International's 2012 list.

"I graduated with top marks but I can not still find work as the system is rotten with corruption," said 28-year old jurist Flori Lika, after voting for the Socialists.

But 40-year-old economist Luljeta Konomi said Berisha "has changed the face of Albania.

"He is the only one able to take Albania in the great European family," she said.

Two more parties -- the New Democratic Spirit of former president Bamir Topi and the ultranationalist Red and Black Alliance -- could also win enough votes to enter the parliament.

In Tirana, people were queueing to cast their ballots even before polling stations opened.

"In Albania, everyone is so obsessed with politics, they think of it even when they make love," said 30-year old engineer Arsen Prifit.

Some 600 international observers are monitoring the polls which are to close at 1700 GMT, with first results expected Monday.


Date created : 2013-06-23


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