Albania elects new president, opposition sidelined

TIRANA Mon Jun 11, 2012 3:52pm EDT

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TIRANA (Reuters) - Albanian lawmakers elected government nominee Bujar Nishani as president on Monday, the appointment pushed through by the ruling party after it shrugged off Western calls for consensus for the sake of national unity.

A former interior minister and member of the ruling Democratic Party, Nishani was elected with 73 votes out of 76 cast in a secret ballot in the 140-seat parliament.

The main opposition Socialist Party did not vote.

The election marked a setback for European Union efforts to ease political tensions in the impoverished Balkan country of 2.8 million people, a NATO member state where opposition unrest last year led to four deaths.

Three previous parliament sessions failed to gather the three-fifths majority required to elect a candidate to the largely ceremonial post of president, under rules designed to establish national unity.

The fourth round needed only a simple majority, which the Democrat-led government of Prime Minister Sali Berisha holds.

The EU has called for greater democratic maturity in Albania before it accepts its application to join the bloc, having rejected it twice in the past two years.

"The role of the president in anchoring Albania's state institutions in independence and in helping the country unite its efforts will be of crucial importance for Albania to successfully address the challenges it faces on its path towards the European Union," the EU's ambassador to Albania, Ettore Sequi, said in a statement in English.

Nishani shook hands with lawmakers but did not make a speech. There was no immediate reaction from the Socialists.

Government and opposition leaders have traded accusations of sabotage throughout the election process, which began last week.

Each has accused the other of harming the country's EU membership bid, which Brussels will review again in October.

Since the end of the communist regime in 1990, Albania has seen fierce political rivalry and at times anarchy on the streets.

The president has the power to hold up legislation and appoints the head of the secret service and the prosecutor general.

Nishani, 45, is a graduate of Albania's military academy and holds degrees in law and European studies. He replaces Bamir Topi, a former ally of Berisha who fell out with the prime minister and plans to challenge him with a new party when his term as president ends in late July.

(Editing by Matt Robinson)

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