TIRANA Members of Albania's opposition Democratic Party pitched a giant tent outside Prime Minister Edi Rama's office on Saturday after thousands of protesters rallied to demand free elections and a technocrat government.
Seven years ago, Rama put up tents outside his predecessor's office to demand a vote recount after a disputed parliamentary election, making the opposition's 300-square-metre (3,230-square-foot) tent politically symbolic.
A NATO member and candidate to join the European Union, Albania has a bitter history of contested polls. Brussels wants to see trouble-free elections and a revamped judiciary tackling widespread corruption before it starts accession talks with Tirana.
Albanians will vote in parliamentary elections on June 18, four years after Rama's leftist coalition ousted the Democrats. The ruling coalition has since won all local elections, but the Democrats have complained they were cheated out of victory and are pressing for reforms to guarantee fair elections.
More than 10,000 people took part in Saturday's peaceful demonstration and police did not intervene to disperse the protesters or remove the tent, which will block traffic on a main street, after a deadline for the protest to end passed.
"Let us stay together to have free and fair elections which we can only achieve by kicking out this government of crime and (replacing it with) the technocrat government of free elections," Democrat leader Lulzim Basha told the rally.
"Free elections, or no elections at all," he said.
The Democrats are demanding the government implement recommendations from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), and have been pushing for electronic voting to allay fears of vote manipulation.
Rama's government has overseen a spell of steady economic growth, helped in part by an International Monetary Fund program.
However, the benefits of GDP growth of 3.4 percent in 2016 have not reached many Albanians.
While the rate marked an improvement on the sluggish 1.1 percent growth in 2013 when Rama took over, it still lags the roughly six percent annual economic expansion seen between 2000 and 2010.
Rama, who was on a visit to neighboring mainly-ethnic Albanian Kosovo, appeared unruffled by Saturday's protest. He drew a comparison between the peaceful rally and another in 2011 under Democrat rule at which four Socialist protesters were shot dead by security forces.
"True reforms are not easy at all, and often very painful operations. But there is no safe future for the country, our society and children if we do not operate with courage on the rotten parts of the state organization," Rama wrote on Facebook.
(Reporting by Benet Koleka; Editing by Helen Popper)