TIRANA Albania's parliament sacked an election official on Monday despite warnings from the country's international partners that the move could damage domestic and overseas confidence in June parliamentary elections.
The fresh political row came after Prime Minister Sali Berisha saw his main coalition ally jump ship to join the opposition ahead of the June 23 elections, but its representative in the seven-member Central Election Commission (CEC) stay put.
Berisha's government survived last week with the votes of three disgruntled opposition lawmakers and their votes again helped sack the election official and bring the commission back under the effective control of his ruling Democratic Party.
"You are asking to destroy the current balance. This is wrong, agreements should be respected," Berisha told the opposition Socialist Party before thanking its three breakaway lawmakers for voting with the government.
During the vote, one opposition lawmaker unsuccessfully tried to prevent a colleague voting for the government move by pulling him out of the chamber.
The Socialists called it a Pyrrhic victory for Berisha and said neither he nor Albania would gain by "staining" the process.
The CEC certifies the results of elections administered by party militants who often show less regard for the law than for party orders, leading to charges of manipulation and fraud.
The marathon parliamentary session started in the morning and ended before midnight as lawmakers from both sides debated whether the CEC and its members were effectively non-partisan after election by the parties.
Members of the CEC are nominated by the main parliamentary parties and their smaller allies, with four nominated by the government and three by the opposition. Most votes in the routine management of the election need a simple majority and some major ones a five-to-two majority.
Both the United States and the European Union have told all parties the election must be free and fair if the former communist country is to advance its bid to join the European Union.
An EU statement said it was the responsibility for all political sides to ensure a non-partisan electoral administration.
"The EU expresses concern and shares the preoccupations of other partners over the possible repercussions of a vote in parliament on the people's confidence in the electoral process," it said ahead of a visit to Tirana on Tuesday by EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.
A NATO member, Albania has lagged behind its Balkan neighbors in stepping closer to the EU due to a lack of compromise between its main parties and the need for far-reaching reforms.
The United States said the independence of the CEC should be respected, even by parliament, and U.S. Ambassador Alexander Arvizu said changing the rules did not inspire confidence in the ballot.
"I don't think anyone wants a decision or action that is going to put Albania on a collision course with the U.S. and the international community," Arvizu told reporters.
(Reporting By Benet Koleka, Editing by David Brunnstrom)