Albanian opposition supporters and lawmakers scuffled with police in central Tirana on Thursday as protests spread across the country over a decision to add previously uncounted votes in a local election to the total.
In the capital, which has become the flashpoint in tension over delayed results from the May 8 local elections, protesters attempted to push past a police cordon outside the election commission building, where a seven-member committee was counting votes cast into the wrong ballot boxes for Tirana mayor.
Albanian Prime Minister Sali Berisha supported the commission’s decision to include the uncounted votes as legal, saying there were at least 300 contested ballots. A private television station even broadcast footage of Albanian President Bamir Topi accidentally casting his ballot into the wrong box.
An initial vote count in the race for Tirana mayor had shown opposition Socialist Party leader Edi Rama ahead by just 10 votes, out of 250,623 ballots cast, over Lulzim Basha, a former Albanian interior minister and member of the governing Democrat party.
Albania has been gripped by a political crisis for almost two years, with the opposition alleging corruption among the governing Democrats and accusing them of rigging national elections in 2009.
The crisis has led to sometimes violent demonstrations in the small Balkan country of 4.2 million, with four opposition supporters shot dead in clashes with police in January. Berisha has repeatedly rejected opposition calls for his resignation.
The authorities said several policemen were slightly injured in Thursday’s scuffles. Police have asked prosecutors to start criminal procedures against 18 opposition lawmakers and seven members of the public for “violent resistance and offense” to authorities — although the lawmakers cannot be investigated unless parliament votes to lift their immunity.
Protests were also held in other towns. Police said about 200 people blocked a highway in Kavaja, 50km west of Tirana, while local media reported protests in the cities of Fier, Durres, Lezhe and Vlore, with demonstrators blocking highways and burning vehicle tires.
The tension led European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fuele to cancel a trip to Tirana yesterday.
“The electoral process is taking some time at the moment, and there are tensions that are related to the ongoing counting of votes. That is why we have the decision to postpone,” commission spokeswoman Natasha Butler said.
Topi appealed for calm.
“In these difficult political moments, the appeal from the head of the state and most citizens in the country is for a return to democratic normalcy, putting public interests over party ones, and for maturity and responsibility,” the president said.
He said Barroso’s visit was expected to have helped Albania’s ties with the EU, which the country hopes to join.
The Socialists have called for protests to topple the government which, they say, is seeking to change the election results with the decision.
Berisha warned Rama against inciting violence.
“I guarantee that violence of any kind will be faced with the harshness of the law,” he said during a news conference.
Berisha also warned that “in Albania there are not only Socialists, but also others, more than 800,000 who voted for my coalition.”