Albanians vote in a hotly fought parliamentary election on Sunday with the ruling Socialists and rival Democrats both setting their sights on an outright majority to push through judicial reforms vital for future European Union membership.
Sunday’s race pits incumbent Socialist Prime Minister Edi Rama against the centre-right Democratic Party of Lulzim Basha, neither of whom managed to win the 70 seats needed for a parliamentary majority in the elections of 2013 or 2009.
The voting is also a test of the country’s democratic credentials and will be watched closely by Western observers eager to see it leave behind a history of election irregularities and violence.
Campaigning has been heated, but mainly peaceful, following a pact by the two main rivals that sought to guarantee a trouble-free election.
Both the main parties want to ditch the Socialist Integration Movement (SIM) of President-elect Ilir Meta, which has gained the role of kingmaker by propping up their respective governments for the last eight years.
Meta and Rama have been at odds since late 2016 due to disputes over policy, and their power struggle has set the tone for the premier’s campaigning.
“The Socialists want your vote to govern alone because we want to build a state of the rule of law,” Rama, a former mayor of Tirana, told supporters on Friday in his seaside constituency of Vlore.
“The smaller parties seek benefits, not values.”
Rama leads polls
Opinion polls have given Rama’s Socialists the edge over the Democrats, but it is not clear whether he could garner enough support to win an outright majority during a second term.
Whatever the outcome of Sunday’s election, the two frontrunners have said they will jointly ask the EU to advance towards the NATO-member country’s accession. They have not said whether they might rule together in coalition.
Since taking office, the Socialists have managed to improve tax collection and boost the performance of the electricity sector. Economic growth accelerated to 3.45 percent last year, compared with 0.97 percent in 2013.
“I came to vote for Eddie Rama because I see his hand in every corner of the country,” a Rama supporter told Al Jazeera in Tirana. “The most important thing he’s trying to establish is the rule of law.”
Erion Veliaj – the mayor of Tirana and a staunch Rama ally – told Al Jazeera that the government’s key battle is to clear out corrupt judges.
“The country has been held hostage for a long time by a clique of about 300 judges who check and balance themselves and have zero control from the general public,” he said.
Al Jazeera’s John Psaropoulos, reporting from Tirana, said that the city’s renovated main square had become a “showpiece of urban reconstruction” for the country’s ambitions.
“Paved with stone sourced throughout Albania – it is a symbol of both modernisation and unity,” he said.
‘Facades and palm trees’
But Albania remains one of the poorest countries in Europe.
Rama’s Socialists failed to fulfil promises to create 300,000 new jobs and secure free healthcare for everyone aged over 40.
Pensioner Alan Troksi told Al Jazeera that he was struggling to make ends meet as his pension was just 110 euros ($123) a month, while his outgoings on utilities alone were 60 euros ($67). “I think things are worse under Rama,” he said.
Basha, a foreign-educated former transport and interior minister, accuses Rama of glossing over the country’s problems with “facades and palm trees” and says he has neglected the economy.
“It is time we develop our economy, otherwise we will miss the chance. Our plan is similar to that of developed European countries. We would bring investments and put Albania to work,” Basha told supporters at his final rally in Tirana on Friday.
He has vowed to cut taxes to spur economic growth and crack down on corruption.
Implementing a sweeping judicial reform aimed at rooting out widespread corruption will be a top priority for the next government and is seen as crucial for the country to progress towards membership of the EU.
Albanian proponents of EU membership hope the country will be able to join the bloc within a decade. Rama said last month the Balkan country could get a green light for formal talks to start at the end of this year.
“Most Albanians associate prosperity and the rule of law with the EU countries [that many] emigrate to – but not their own,” said Al Jazeera’s John Psaropoulos.
“The prime minister is trying to harness the European ambitions of Albanian voters to convince them to be Europeans at home.”