Tirana, Albania - Under the secretive Communist regime of Enver Hoxha, Blloku was the most restricted district in Albania. Only high-ranking apparatchiks in the ruling Party of Labour were allowed to reside in the tight grid of tree-lined streets located in the centre of the capital, Tirana. In the middle of "the Block" stood Hoxha's own private residence, an opulent Italianate villa with a swimming pool in the garden, completely at odds with the poverty that most Albanians lived in.
More than two decades after the fall of the hardline Communists, Blloku has been transformed into the busiest location in this picturesque Adriatic state. Formerly austere government buildings are now shopping emporia and luxury flats. Hoxha's old house is still there - but now it's a popular open-air bar.
Currently, Blloku features something else unimaginable in Comrade Enver's authoritarian time - election paraphernalia. And lots of it.
It's hard to walk more than a few metres in Blloku without coming across a poster for the ruling Democratic Party, a billboard for a the small LSI party, or even a stencil in support of the main opposition, the Socialists, spray-painted on a wall.
On Sunday, June 23, Albanians go to the polls in parliamentary elections for the first time since a contentious vote in 2009. The choice is essentially the same as four years ago: incumbent Prime Minister Sali Berisha and his Democratic Party - in power since 2005 - or the Socialist party led by the former mayor of Tirana, Edi Rama.
Electoral coalitions are the norm in Albanian politics. Rama is leading the "Alliance for a European Albania", which includes the Socialists, LSI, a Greek minority party and four small Communist groups. Berisha's "Alliance for Employment, Welfare and Integration" - led by the Democratic Party - includes the Republican Party and a party for the Chams, a group of Albanians originally from near the Greek border. Most polls put the Socialist alliance ahead - but the result is far from certain.
'Everything we need'
"This government needs to change," said architect Lindito Ziu, as she waited for a friend less than a hundred metres from Hoxha's former home. "In eight years, they haven't invested anything in this country."
|Edi Rama is the leader of the Albanian opposition and Socialist Party candidate for the Prime Minister post [EPA]
Earlier this month, Berisha cut the ribbon on a new highway linking Tirana and the industrial city of Elbasan to the south. An hour and a half journey on dangerous mountain roads has been cut down to just 40 minutes. But Ziu is not impressed. "They say they have done the roads but they will only last a year or two. They were not built properly," she said.
Not everybody is dissatisfied with Berisha. A little further down the street, shopkeeper Fatos Kume said he will be voting for the craggy-faced northerner and former cardiologist who has dominated Albanian political life for more than two decades. "Everyone can see the difference he has made," he said.
Originally from the southern city of Vlore, Kume contrasts the bustling shop he has run for the past seven years with life under the Communist regime. "Under Communism, a man had just one suit - and even that he would have to borrow. When I got married I borrowed my brother's suit," he recalls. "When I first went to Tirana with my wife, I bumped into my sister-in-law and she recognised me by her husband's suit."
"Now it is different. Now we have everything we need."
Many Albanians are not so fortunate. Average monthly salaries are around $330 dollars. Unofficially, unemployment is around 30 percent. The economy has avoided recession but is struggling to grow, while public debt has risen sharply. In February, the World Bank criticised the Berisha government for breaking a self-imposed public debt ceiling of 60 percent. Corruption is a fact of daily life.
Rama has attacked Berisha for his failure to tackle Albania's economic problems and the endemic corruption. "We are in a deep economic crisis, with high unemployment, bad services, (and) a very poor social situation, especially in suburbs and rural areas. Corruption and crime are big problems," the Socialist party leader told Al Jazeera.
"The core problem of Albania has to do with the fact that our economic model has exhausted itself. It has been based for many years on wild exploitation of resources, on constructions and on the remittances of emigrants, no job creation and no productivity. It is time to turn the page and build a new economic model," Rama said.
Both the Democrats and the Socialists have committed to creating upwards of a quarter of a million new jobs. Berisha's party plans to attract more foreign direct investment by establishing a 10 percent flat rate on all personal income and corporate taxes. Rama has promised to lower taxes for low-and middle-income employees at the expense of higher income earners.
"In terms of substance, it's a fiscally irresponsible campaign," said Lutfi Dervishi, executive director of Transparency International Albania. "They promise pie in the sky - raising salaries, raising pensions, reducing taxes - but where is the money coming from?"
"The economic issue is the elephant in the room that nobody wants to talk about."
There has been little thought given to how "Albania is going to face these turbulent economic times", said Dervishi.
A muddled election process
As is often the case in Albanian elections - and those elsewhere - the campaign has been dominated more by personalities than policies. Berisha and Rama have a long and acrimonious history. After the 2009 vote, the Socialists boycotted parliament, accusing Berisha and the Democratic Party of stealing the election. Two years later, four people were killed in Tirana when police opened fire on protesters at an opposition demonstration.
The beleaguered country also has a chequered election history. Previous votes have been marred by allegations of vote rigging, violence and intimidation. This time around there have numerous reports of vote buying, particularly in the key marginal districts that will decide the outcome of Sunday's vote.
"We have reports coming from poor citizens of being offered money in exchange for their vote, or young voters who are thrown parties and [offered] excursions by candidates to win their favour," said Aranita Brahaj, project coordinator for ZaLart, a website which collects reports about alleged electoral fraud from across Albania.
The economic issue is the elephant in the room that nobody wants to talk about.
Brahaj said that, in the Kamza district of Tirana, voters were being offered anything from $30 to $100 for their ballot. Elsewhere in the country there have been reports of voters being offered food, money, and even cows in exchange for their votes.
"I think it is not a democracy, as some citizens cannot have a vote because they are poor," said Brahaj.
There are question marks, too, over whether the result can be verified after Sunday's vote. Following a split in Berisha's ruling coalition in April, the Central Elections Committee (CEC) has only four sitting members - one fewer than the five required to declare the result of the election.
"There is no clean way for the results to get out, which doesn't look good," said Skye Christensen, an international election consultant. "You could find a way to get around it but you would have to break the law. The question is who breaks the law and where."
All the main parties support membership of the European Union. But the accession process has stalled badly in recent years and the EU has warned that it will be watching Sunday's vote closely. The election must be "in line with international and European standards", Catherine Ashton, the European Union's foreign policy chief, said in April.
Given Albania's turbulent electoral history and the machinations around the Central Elections Committee, few are expecting a quick result.
"Albanian elections are interesting not prior to the election but the day after," said Dervishi. "It's a question of political will whether both parties want to proceed at speed [with the count and declaration] or put the brakes on the election process. It could take a while."
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