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Albania Holds Crucial General Elections July 3

All of the 140 seats in parliament are up for grabs. The main contenders are the ruling Socialist Party of Prime Minister Fatos Nano and an opposition coalition led by the Democratic Party, headed by former president Sali Berisha. The two party leaders have been bitter rivals since the early 1990's. They have taken turns running the country and each accuses the other of massive corruption.

This is Albania's sixth parliamentary election since the collapse of communism. Each of the previous elections was marred either by violence or allegations of widespread fraud. U.S. State Department spokesman Adam Ereli is hopeful these elections will conform to western standards.

"This is a very important event in the history of Albania and it's one that we are watching closely. It is an opportunity for the leadership of Albania, (the) political leadership and civil society of Albania, to show the world, show their neighbors, that they are meeting international standards and making progress towards joining the international community as a member of an integrated Euro-Atlantic community," he said.

Dan Redford is an adviser in the Albanian office of the U.S.-sponsored National Democratic Institute. He says that an election that is judged to be free and fair will further Albania's aspirations of joining Euro-Atlantic institutions. "Obviously the future direction of Albania is integration in EU, and also into NATO, and much of this is being stated by relevant EU and international figures, depend on the quality of this election," he said.

Both of the main parties are regarded as authoritarian and their democratic credentials are tarnished. Mr. Nano's ruling Socialists have presided over considerable economic growth in recent years, and he is hopeful his role in promoting Albania's integration into the European institutions will give him an edge on Sunday.

Pre-elections polls show that each of the two main parties will attract about 34 percent of the vote. A third party, which broke away from Mr. Nano's Socialists, is expected to get 10 percent. Analysts worry that a close election could be grounds for either of the two big parties to contest the result. About 450 outside observers, most under the auspices of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, will be monitoring the election.