June 28, 2019 / 3:31 PM / 4 months ago

West calls on Albanians to avoid violence in disputed election

TIRANA (Reuters) - European bodies and the United States called on Albanian parties on Friday to avoid violence during mayoral elections, due to be held across the country on Sunday despite being declared illegal by the president and boycotted by the opposition.

Prime Minister Edi Rama’s government is carrying out the elections for mayors of 61 towns and cities in defiance of a decree by President Ilir Meta that the votes are illegal because they are not sufficiently competitive.

With the opposition having called a boycott, nearly half of the contests will see a candidate from Rama’s ruling Socialist Party running unopposed.

Opposition Democratic Party supporters have been accused of vandalising polling stations, mostly in schools, and torching election equipment. Some 50 people have been arrested and police say they are hunting for dozens more suspects.

Opposition parties call the election a throwback to the Communist era, when the ruling party held uncontested elections to confirm its grip on power. The government says the president has no authority to call off the vote, and blames the opposition for failing to field more candidates.

The European Union, which is expected to decide later this year whether to open talks to admit Albania as a member, said the conduct of the vote could have an impact on that bid.

“Any violent act or any form of incitement to violence are absolutely unacceptable under any circumstances,” its delegation in Tirana said.

“All sides should engage in a genuine dialogue as soon as possible to overcome the current political situation in order to focus their efforts on sustaining and consolidating the progress made by Albania so far in the reform process on its EU integration path.”

The U.S. embassy called for political leaders to reject violence and not to interfere with people’s right to vote.

The 57-member Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which will lead an international mission of election observers, said attempts to derail the voting with violence would “stall the progress of Albania and stain the country’s international reputation”.

Reporting by Benet Koleka; Editing by Peter Graff

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