June 19, 2019 / 3:54 PM / a month ago

Albanian opposition supporters scuffle with police before elections

TIRANA (Reuters) - Albanian opposition supporters scuffled with police outside vote-counting centres on Wednesday and burned voting equipment at three locations in a dispute over whether to hold local elections on June 30.

Opposition supporters demonstrate outside a school building designated to be a polling station, during an anti-government protest in Kavaja, Albania, June 19, 2019. REUTERS/Florion Goga

Opposition parties have boycotted parliament since mid-February and refused to take part in the elections, accusing Prime Minister Edi Rama of vote buying. They want Rama to quit to pave the way for a snap general election.

But Rama’s Socialists have been campaigning as usual and ignored a decree by President Ilir Meta cancelling the vote for mayoral and municipal posts over security concerns.

In 14 towns run by opposition mayors, supporters and municipal police members have been involved in scuffles with state police since Tuesday.

The government plans to dismantle some municipal police bodies.

On Wednesday evening, a crowd tried to storm into a school that would be a counting centre in the western town of Kavaje, tearing down a section of its iron fence. Police responded with tear gas and the crowd threw flares and stones back at them.

A dozen people have been held for damaging election equipment nationwide and police want to arrest another 20, deputy general police director Aida Hajnaj told a news conference.

At one location, protesters were dispersed with pepper spray, while they burned election equipment in three places. Crowds chanted “Rama quit”, and “There will be no elections without the Democratic Party”.

Rama took to Twitter in a robust response.

“I ask them whether it pays to perpetrate election crimes and face the law for the sake of those who brought your parties to rock bottom and wish to transform their own troubles with the judiciary into Albania’s troubles,” he wrote.

The government has been vetting judges to weed out those it considers corrupt, in a bid to end impunity for top politicians and meet a condition of the European Union, which has delayed until autumn a decision on whether to hold accession talks with Tirana.

The local office of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) condemned the violence and said the perpetrators must be held accountable.

“Any attempt to derail democratic process through violent actions infringes the law, stalls the progress of the country and stains its international reputation,” the OSCE said.

Reporting by Benet Koleka; Editing by Hugh Lawson and Andrew Cawthorne

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