Albania pro-EU prime minister set to win parliamentary majority

Albania’s prime minister, the artist turned politician Edi Rama, is poised to be returned to power following parliamentary elections seen as key to the country’s future prospects of EU membership.

As ballots continued to be counted on Monday, an exit poll showed Rama and his Socialist party on course to win between 45% and 49% of the vote.

If correct, the result would secure the Socialists control of more than half the 140-seat house.

The opposition centre-right Democratic party, led by Lulzim Basha, was trailing with 34%. The poll, conducted by Italy’s IPR Marketing, had a margin of error of two percentage points.

With 40% of the vote counted, preliminary results released by the nation’s central election commission showed the ruling party winning 51.6% of the ballots cast.

Rama, who campaigned on a ticket of further integration with the west, has vowed to push ahead with reforms including a root-and-branch overhaul of the justice system. Along with free and fair elections, both are a condition for the small Balkan state launching accession talks with Brussels later this year.

Before the vote, Rama had shared power since 2013 for lack of a parliamentary majority, and had pledged to lay off corrupt judges and improve property rights – an explosive issue in the nation of 2.9 million people.

More than 300 international observers were dispatched to monitor Sunday’s vote. Casting his ballot, Rama said: “Today Albania needs God more than ever.” On the campaign trail he had said that if voters gave him the mandate required to rule alone “we could open talks with the EU and boost the economy”.

Supporters of the Socialist party wave Albanian national flags during the closing electoral rally in Mother Theresa square in Tirana
Supporters of the Socialist party wave Albanian national flags during the closing electoral rally in Mother Theresa square in Tirana. Photograph: Hektor Pustina/AP

The west would welcome the prospect of a stable, reform-minded government in Tirana. Although a Nato member since 2009 and an EU candidate since 2014, Albania has struggled to pass the reforms required to advance its bid to join the bloc. Instead, 27 years after the collapse of communism, the former Stalinist state has come to represent increased instability in the western Balkans in recent years.

With the EU preoccupied with its own internal problems, starting with the economic and refugee crises that erupted south of Albania’s border in Greece, concern about dangerous backsliding across the Balkan peninsula has mounted amid signs of rising ethnic tensions, instability and Russian intervention. Despite being seen as a moderate, Rama, who turns 54 next week, has not been immune to playing the nationalist card, with irredentist talk that has strained relations with Macedonia and Greece. Concerns over Albania’s fragile democracy have compounded fears.

The country has been in political crisis since February when the Democratic party began boycotting the national parliament. It was averted only when the two main parties agreed to bury the hatchet and participate in the election. The boycott followed accusations of high-level corruption and alleged links between public officials and organised crime, including drug cartels behind the country’s lucrative heroin and cocaine trade.

Rama himself vowed ahead of the vote to make eradication of cannabis production a priority. Cannabis fields have increased fivefold over the past year, according to the US state department, and Albania’s growing reputation as an incipient narco-state is viewed as another mserious impediment to EU hopes.

In a country where the gross monthly wage last year was around €340 (£300) and where a quarter of young people are said to be unemployed, production of the drug has become an economic mainstay. Huge amounts of cannabis are transported to Italy and Greece, where hundreds of thousands of people have also emigrated in search of work.