By Benet Koleka
TIRANA (Reuters) – Voting in Albanian mayoral elections that opposition parties are boycotting began calmly on Sunday after Western countries warned against violence, although some abstainers mocked those who were casting a vote with songs from the country’s communist past.
European bodies and the United States have called on Albanian parties to avoid violence during the elections for mayors of 61 towns and cities, which President Ilir Meta has decreed illegal because they are not sufficiently competitive.
In half the contests, the boycott led by the main opposition Democratic Party will leave the candidate from Prime Minister Edi Rama’s ruling Socialist Party running unopposed.
Mindful of those warnings, Democratic Party leader Lulzim Bashaw told his supporters late on Saturday: “Do not fall prey to the instinct of violence! Do not fall prey to the provocations for violence!”
Democratic Party supporters were accused last week of vandalising polling stations, located mostly in schools, and torching election equipment.
Interior Minister Sander Lleshaj told reporters on Sunday that voting was proceeding calmly. He said he was sorry the opposition was missing a vote which “it had every chance of taking part in”.
The main opposition parties have also boycotted parliament since mid-February, accusing Rama of vote buying and demanding that he step down to pave the way for a snap nation election, which he has refused to do.
The European Union, which will decide in the autumn whether to start accession talks with Tirana, has warned polarized local politicians that their quarrels could stand in the way of EU membership for Albania.
“I call on citizens to live up to their civic duty, the more so now we are on the threshold of a truly important decision for Albania, the opening of negotiations for the membership of Albania into the European Union,” Lleshaj said.
Opposition parties have called the election a throwback to the Communist era, when the ruling party held uncontested elections to confirm its 45-year grip on power.
To lampoon the voting on Sunday, some Democratic Party supporters played music in the streets and at voting centres, even ironically chanting the name of late dictator Enver Hoxha.
Socialist candidates are running unopposed in 31 races, including in the big towns of Elbasan and Gjirokaster, while in 24 they face candidates from a newly-formed splinter group from the main opposition Democratic Party.
Rama, who has dismissed Meta’s presidential decree cancelling the vote as unconstitutional, said “the voting day confirmed the people’s sovereignty was not an empty word”.
(Reporting by Benet Koleka; Editing by Catherine Evans)