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Political stability the goal of Sunday's Albanian election

ballot June 28, 1997
Web posted at: 8:55 p.m. EDT (0055 GMT)

In this report:

TIRANA, Albania (CNN) -- As an uneasy peace holds, Albanians are preparing to vote Sunday in parliamentary elections that are supposed to direct the country toward stability.

With the campaigns winding down, the tone of the candidates is anything but civil. A rebel leader running for office vowed to help bring criminals to justice and -- in practically the same breath -- to kill President Sali Berisha.

Political rivals have alternated violent attacks with bombastic speeches, trying to win public confidence to pull the country out of months of chaos.

A 7,000-strong multinational protection force, sent into Albania in April to try to restore some calm, will escort and protect observers at polling stations.

vxtreme CNN's Mike Hanna reports from Tirana, Albania

Most of Albania's 4,525 polling stations were due to open at 7 a.m. (0500 GMT) and close at 6 p.m. (1600 GMT), three hours earlier than previously planned because safety fears for voters and observers.

Results should begin trickling into Central Electoral Commission headquarters in Tirana late Sunday, but overall official results were not expected until Tuesday.

A total of 1,112 candidates were running for the 155-member parliament in which 115 seats are allocated in first-past- the-post races and the rest on a proportional basis. A runoff poll will be held July 6 for the two top candidates in areas where no one winds 50 percent.

Berisha to leave presidency if opponents win

The elections were planned as the first step in restoring order in Albania, where violent protests over failed investment schemes degenerated into armed revolt early in the year. Thousands of guns were looted from government armories, and more than 1,500 people were killed in the mayhem.

"In March we had anarchy," former Austrian Chancellor Franz Vranitzky told about 500 international observers. "Throughout the country the only rule was that of the gun."

The election pits Berisha's right-leaning Democrats with the Socialist-led opposition and armed gangs. Berisha's job is not being contested Sunday, but he has agreed to step down if the opposition wins.

Criminal bands still roam the countryside

Vranitzky, the top international elections monitor, said the voting will help Albania "return to order and democratic legitimacy."


Criminal bands still wander much of the countryside and there is little, if any, rule of law in most of the armed southern enclaves, including the port city of Vlora, where the rebellion against Berisha began.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which is helping Albanian authorities with the election, said all 500 international observers had reached their polling stations in Albania safely -- with no threats from gunmen who roam the countryside.

According to the Central Election Committee, only 1.3 million people were registered to vote three weeks ago, nearly 1 million less than last year.

Many Albanians are optimistic

Observers say many polling stations still lack the necessary voting materials. Violence has prevented last-minute distribution of ballot slips to places such as Vlora.

"There is still a lot of frenetic activity," OSCE election coordinator Tony Welch told a news conference. "It may mean a delay in the opening of the polling stations. It may mean in some cases that they may not open at all."

While outside forces are providing security, they do not have the mandate or the resources to provide logistical support.

But among many Albanians there is still the hope that the elections will succeed, and political stability will return. Among the optimists is lawyer Behjet Agolli, a member of a regional voting commission in Tirana.

"We are dealing with very bad conditions," Agolli says. "But the steel will of the people to vote will ensure that the results are legitimate."


The election comes just 13 months after Albania's last general election, the third multi-party poll since the collapse of communism in 1990.

After considerable pressure, Berisha agreed in March to schedule the election after a government of his ruling Democrats yielded to a 10-party unity coalition set up to try to quell the violence and looting.

'We will kill all the criminals'

In Vlora, rebel leader Partizan Caushi is running for office as a Social Democrat, allied with the Socialists. Known simply as "Zani," he is among those blamed for fomenting much of the violence that has wracked the city.

But Caushi insists he would help bring crime under control.

"The priority is to hold elections in this country, to have a new government. We will collaborate with the police to restore order, and we will kill all the criminals," he said.

He said the country would not accept victory by the Democratic Party, then added that if he wins, he will kill Berisha on the first day of parliament.

Correspondent Mike Hanna, Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report


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