Hunger-strikers demanding a recount nearly a year after a parliamentary election in Albania.
Camped out in white tents, 22 lawmakers and 200 backers of the opposition Socialist Party have brought their protest to the door of Prime Minister Sali Berisha and are blocking the wide avenue below his office.
The 12-day-old fast extends a stalemate between government and the opposition that has dragged on since the election on June 28, 2009, defying efforts by EU leaders to find a solution.
"We will fight with no pause until we reach our goal," opposition leader Edi Rama, who is also Tirana's mayor, told Reuters. "We'll not stop until we get something that is so elementary for every normal democracy."
Rama lost the race for prime minister in a close contest with the incumbent Berisha, Albania's dominant political figure since the fall of Communism in 1990.
International observers had hoped it would be Albania's first free and fair contest, marking clear progress for a country that is already in NATO and has applied to join the EU.
"The country's process was a real disgrace," said one diplomat this week. "Of course, there has been cheating."
The stand-off has impacted the country's bond rating and the perceptions of investors.
"Of course, political instability and political crisis have a negative impact on international markets," said Arben Malaj, an ex-finance minister who is on hunger strike. "Investors are hesitant to invest in this kind of atmosphere."
The Socialists, who have nearly half the seats in parliament, have alleged widespread fraud and boycotted parliament since September except for brief periods from March.
Berisha maintains the election was the best ever held in Albania and has been certified by the courts.
"Albania's progress towards Europe is unstoppable," he said, comparing the opposition's efforts to the futile "battles with windmills" of Spanish literary knight Don Quixote.
Heading to stagnation?
Madrid think tank FRIDE said in a report: "The fight between the government and the opposition is merely the manifestation of much deeper problems undermining the development of democracy in Albania." Locals and international stakeholders feared "the country was heading towards stagnation", it said.
Drinking only water, the hunger strikers are monitored by doctors. The weak are treated with intravenous drips and those who have fallen ill are sent to hospital where they end the strike. Three MPs were forced to quit on Wednesday, one with serious heart problems. Others vow to stay on.
"I will stay until I am unconscious," said Arben Ahmetaj, a lawmaker, who said he had lost 5 kg (11 lb) in 10 days. Pop star Elsa Lila, recently arrived from Rome, vowed to fast to the end. "The Albanian character is very strong," she said.
EU and other international officials have tried to mediate since last summer, without success. Many diplomats see the hunger strike as an unnecessary escalation, and the EU has called for "maturity." The EU, Spanish and U.S. ambassadors have been backing Albanian President Bamir Topi to renew efforts to find a solution after a previous botched attempt.
Launching a U.S.-backed survey showing almost 92 percent of Albanians believed there was widespread corruption among public officials, U.S. Ambassador John L. Wither II regretted the "failure of communication" between the public and politicians.
"Isn't it time for them to stop the infighting and the bickering and to take care of your business, the people's business?" Withers said addressing all parties. "Don't the good people of Albania deserve better than that?"
Rama, who is not himself fasting, said he saw a parallel with a U.S. newspaper's recount of the disputed Florida election between George W. Bush and Al Gore in 2000.
"The opening of the boxes showed some interesting things but didn't change the person in the White House," he told Reuters.
"It changed a lot: the legislation in Florida and other places, and also it improved the culture and way people do elections next. This is exactly what we want to achieve."
ReutersLast Mod: 13 Mayıs 2010, 09:02