Voters across Albania are heading to the polling stations today to elect their local government leaders – 61 new mayors through a direct vote and 1,610 members of the local municipal councils though a closed-list party vote.
Voting started at 7 a.m. and will end at 7 p.m. About 3.3 million Albanians are eligible to vote, but less than half that number is expected to cast their ballots based on previous voting patterns. A third of the country’s population has emigrated abroad in the previous 25 years and can cast votes only if they return to their hometowns.
The June 21 elections are being primarily contested between the two coalitions led by Socialist Prime Minister Edi Rama and outgoing Tirana Mayor Lulzim Basha of the main opposition Democratic Party. There are also a handful of independent candidates and parties running outside the coalitions.
The elections are seen as a test for Rama and Basha, who have ran national campaigns in support of their local candidates. The the vote will offer the first real measure of voter support after 18 months of power for the Socialists, which won the 2013 general elections by a comfortable margin.
Albania is a highly-centralized state and local governments have limited powers, which include but are not limited to urban planning and issuing construction permits as well as operating water supply systems and trash collection.
The election comes after weeks of campaigning that has been less aggressive than previous elections, but which has been accompanied by some harsh rhetoric and accusations of improper conduct.
The municipalities with the largest population, those in the Tirana-Durres metropolitan area as well as those centered around the cities of Shkodra, Elbasan, Vlora and Korça have drawn the most attention, but strong races have been held and a few incidents have registered across Albania, from Konispol near the Greek border to Kukes, bordering Kosovo.
- Tirana, Durres, Shkodra – key races -
Due to the fact that about one in three Albanian voters now lives within the municipality of Tirana, the race in the capital has been the most watched. The new mayor of Tirana will now rule a very large area, including many of the city’s suburbs and other towns and villages which once had self-government.
Erion Veliaj, 35, of the governing Socialists is competing with Halim Kosova, 60, of the main opposition Democratic Party for the top job. They are facing challenges from three other candidates, including an independent, Gjergj Bojaxhi, who opinion polls show could make a strong showing.
Veliaj is a former Welfare Minister and well-known former civil society activist with strong ties to the prime minister. Veliaj has promised more jobs and better infrastructure through cooperation with the national government, which is run by his party.
Kosova, one of the country’s best known obstetricians, served shortly as Health Minister but has spent most of his career as a maternity hospital doctor and manager. Kosova has said he will offer better management and lower taxes. His party’s leader, Basha, did not seek reelection in Tirana, saying he wants to focus on the prime minister’s seat in two years time.
Beating the high registration wall required for independent candidates to run without a party by submitting nearly 14,ooo signatures, Bojaxhi is an Albanian American business executive, who has promised a referendum to ban all construction on green spaces in Tirana and improve urban planning.
There are two other smaller party candidates, who are running below 5 percent in opinion polls.
Albania’s second largest municipality, Durres, will see a race between the Democrats’ Grida Duma, 37, a university professor who saw a quick rise in the party thanks to her media-savvy approach to politics, and incumbent Socialist Vangjush Dako, 49, who is seeking his third term as Durres mayor.
Shkodra is unique in that it has two female candidates – the Democrats’ Voltana Ademi, a university professor, and the Socialists’ Keti Bazhdari, a business owner.
- New administrative division -
The elections are more important than in the past because they are the first to be conducted after the administrative reform that drastically cut the number of municipalities in Albania from 384 to 61 by merging smaller rural municipalities with nearby larger urban ones.
The Socialists made the reform a priority after coming to power in the national elections of 2013. They said it was a cost-cutting move that would lead to better governance.
The opposition Democrats have been against the reform and did not take part in its drafting. They have also accused the government of drawing up municipal borders to give an electoral advantage to Socialists.
- Hundreds of observers monitor vote -
An army of local and international observers will be present on voting day, including from the OSCE/ODIHR’s mission and a coalition of local civil society organization.
They will evaluate the elections for their compliance with international obligations and standards for democratic elections.
Tirana, Albania – June 21, 2005