TIRANA Albania's president on Monday set its next parliamentary election for June 23 with Tirana under pressure to avoid a repeat of a contested 2009 vote that set back its bid to join the European Union.
The opposition Socialist Party, led by Edi Rama, challenged the result of the last election four years ago in protests that eventually ended in clashes with police. Four protesters were killed.
Rama will bid again to unseat Sali Berisha, leader of the ruling Democratic Party and Albania's fiery prime minister for the past eight years.
There have been no recent opinion polls, but with the government under fire over corruption and weak rule of law, analysts expect the vote to be close.
In the last election, the Democratic Party took half of the 140 seats in parliament and clinched a slim majority with the support of the Socialist Integration Movement.
The EU says Albania must hold free and fair elections and improve democracy before it can become an official candidate for membership of the bloc. The Balkan state of 2.8 million people, one of the poorest in Europe, is already a member of NATO.
Both the EU and United States have been pressing Albania to overcome an atmosphere of intense political polarization between the Democrats and the Socialists that has slowed and sometimes paralyzed reforms.
Unlike most countries of the western Balkans, Albania has avoided recession, but the crisis in neighboring Greece and Italy - Albania's main trading partners - has slowed growth and led to a fall in vital remittances from the large Albanian diaspora.
Albanians complain that economic growth has failed to reduce widespread poverty or improve social welfare.
Also on Monday, President Bujar Nishani sacked Prosecutor General Ina Rama and replaced her with Adriatik Lalla, a former prosecutor overseeing the wealth statements of civil servants.
The prime minister holds most power in Albania, while the president's role is mainly ceremonial apart from his position as head of the armed forces and top council of justice.
(Editing by Matt Robinson and Mark Heinrich)