Albanian split deepens as Socialists force through election of president

TIRANA (Reuters) - Albania’s Socialist party used its majority in parliament to force through the election of a new president of the Balkan country on Friday, leaving its politics polarized as the opposition maintains a two-month-old boycott.

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The new president, Ilir Meta, has twice served briefly as a Socialist prime minister before forming a breakaway party that for the past eight years has alternately played kingmaker to both main parties.

The opposition Democratic Party and its allies accused Prime Minister Edi Rama of being a hypocrite for handing the presidency to a man he once accused of being “the symbol of everything rotten happening in Albania”.

Meta, 48, said it was the opposition boycott that prompted him to accept the role. “We should try to find consensus so that Albania does not become like Macedonia,” he said referring to protesters’ violent storming of parliament in the neighboring country late on Thursday.

The constitution calls for Albania’s president to be elected by parliament with three-fifths of the vote. Meta got the votes of 87 lawmakers, and two against, surpassing the target by two.

The opposition, whose absence from parliament is stalling a reform of the judiciary that would help Albania start accession talks with the European Union, is demanding the formation of a new technocratic government of experts.

It says the current one is corrupt and has rigged recent local elections. Camped out in a tent near the government building, opposition lawmakers are also threatening to protest at a mayoral election in the central town of Kavaje on May 7, and to boycott parliamentary elections on June 18.

Meta and Rama have had an uneasy time governing since they won a landslide victory in June 2013, with Meta’s party at times acting as a harsh critic of the government’s work.

Analyst Blendi Fevziu said Meta wanted the presidency to try to mould an image as a unifying figure in the divided NATO member state.

“Rama managed to get Meta, his main rival for the premier’s job, out of the active political scene for the next five years. He has now only one rival, the Democratic Party leader,” Fevziu wrote.

As a deputy premier under former prime minister Sali Berisha, Meta resigned and was cleared of corruption charges by the Supreme Court after one of his own ministers accused him of interfering in a tender and a concession with offers of bribes.

Four Socialist Party supporters were shot and killed by security forces after a protest staged by Rama against Meta’s alleged corruption and election violations turned violent in January 2011.

Reporting by Benet Koleka, Editing by Mark Trevelyan