Polling stations open on Sunday for what will undoubtedly be one of the most closely scrutinised elections in Albania’s recent history.
Standing by to ensure a free and fair election will by an army of more than 8,000 local and international observers.
Facing a difficult transition to democracy since the collapse of the Communist regime in 1991, Albania’s elections have been routinely marred by fraud and violence.
The last elections in 2009 sparked a political crisis between the ruling Democrats and opposition Socialists that still reverberates.
Sunday’s poll, therefore, is seen as a kind of litmus test for Albania to get its battered EU integration process back on track.
“The elections on 23 June represent a crucial test for the country's democratic institutions and its progress towards the European Union,” a joint statement issued on Monday by EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fule said.
“It is the joint responsibility of all Albanian political leaders and parties to reinforce the confidence and trust of the public in the electoral process and create conditions for election results to be accepted by all,” they added.
The race pits two major coalitions against one another, one headed by the ruling centre-right Democratic Party of Prime Minister Sali Berisha and the other led by the Socialists of former Tirana mayor Edi Rama.
Berisha is seeking a third mandate in power. He previously served as head of state from 1992-1997 and from 1991 has been the uncontested leader of the Democrats.
Rama was the mayor of Tirana from 2000 until 2011 and became chairman of the Socialist Party in 2005.
The atmosphere of the campaign has been generally calm and peaceful, with the Democrats focusing on their achievements in government, particularly infrastructural development and salary increases for public officials.
The opposition Socialist have predictably lambasted the government and have promised to strengthen economic growth, social security and the fight against corruption.
According to a recent survey commissioned by Ora News TV and conducted by an Italian company, IPR marketing, Rama’s left-wing coalition has a narrow edge.
It has the support of about 51 per cent of voters as opposed to be about 45 per cent rooting for Berisha’s coalition.
However, because of the complicated regional and proportional voting system, the results could turn out to be closer than polls suggest.
Despite the high stakes at play for the country’s EU future, observers note real fears the electoral process will be marred by fraud.
Local observers have voiced concern about the failure of the justice system to investigate numerous allegations of vote buying and misuse of public assets by the Democratic Party.
“The main concern raised by the electoral campaign was the use of the assets of the public administration by political parties,” a report published on Wednesday by the Coalition of Domestic Observers, an electoral watchdog group of Albanian NGOs, said.
“Despite wide media coverage [of the allegations] the reaction of justice institutions has been almost non-existent,” it added.
Gjergj Erebara, editor of the Tirana daily Shqip, notes frequent reports that the Democratic Party has put pressure on public employees during the electoral campaign.
“The misuse of the public administration to support the ruling party seems to have reached appalling levels,” he said.
“There have been reports of arbitrary hirings and firings from the highest to the lowest-level workers,” he added.
“The pressure is at an all-time high on public servants who often find themselves facing an ‘Are-you-with-us-or-against-us?’ dilemma,” Erebara continued.
Political commentator Mero Baze agrees. Reports of the ruling party putting pressure on civil servants to photograph their votes and verify the political preferences of their relatives and friends are unacceptable, he said.
Baze says there is ample evidence that vulnerable social groups have been offered cash in exchange for photographing their votes or handing over their identity cards, to ensure they do not vote for the opposition.
“This campaign has been marred by such dark deeds that have never been seen before in this country,” Baze maintained.
There are also concerns about the probity of the vote count after the polls close on Sunday remain.
Many fear that if widespread expectations of an opposition win in the elections are disappointed, civil unrest and protests might ensue.
However, commentators disagree on the scale of the support that the opposition can expect to muster in the event of a result dogged by fraud claims.
“The opposition unfortunately does not have moral credentials to get Albanians to stage mass protests even if the government only retains power through irregularities,” Erebara noted.
“A revolution is thus unlikely to occur, although small-scale protests and confrontations with the police are to be expected,” he added.
But Baze says that while the opposition lacks the moral kudos to head up major protests, if the elections are flagrantly marred by fraud, the government should expect to meet a strong reaction.
“Albania is prepared for political change, not because of the opposition’s merit but because of deep disappointment with the corrupt rule of Prime Minister Berisha,” he said.
“If the polls are tampered with and this rotation in power is blocked, the country will face revolts - which could be headed by civil society activists rather than by the opposition,” he concluded.