Roughly 200 of the Socialist-led opposition in Albania are on a hunger strike in the capital, Tirana. They want the ballot boxes from last year's election to be reopened, and say "we will continue until we collapse."
The hunger strikers' canopies are in full view of the prime minister's office
Opposition lawmakers in Albania began the fifth full day of their hunger strike in the capital Tirana this Wednesday, and say they have no intention of giving up until the ballot boxes from last year's general election are reopened.
"We will continue until we collapse," Socialist Party parliamentarian Arben Ahmetaj told Deutsche Welle. "And if I had the choice, I'd go even further."
Ahmetaj is camped out in the capital, Tirana, with around 200 fellow politicians, sleeping in beds under canopies, in plain view of the office of Prime Minister Sali Berisha.
The Socialists are demanding a partial recount of the vote from last year's general election, which handed a narrow majority to Berisha's conservative Democratic Party. The opposition has been largely boycotting parliament for the past eight months, holding up the passage of many laws designed to align the country with European Union legislation.
"The government stole the elections," Socialist leader Edi Rama, who is also the mayor of Tirana, said. "So we need transparency for the sake of the freedom and fairness of the next elections."
Ramifications in Brussels
Prime Minister Sali Berisha casts his vote in last year's general election
Rama and his Socialists say they don't want parliament to be realigned on the basis of a possible recount, rather they say they want the country to analyze and learn from the alleged problems in the last ballot.
The opposition leader accepts that his party's various protests are slowing Albania's integration and progress towards joining the EU, but he says the Socialists have not caused a crisis, but instead are protesting because one already existed in the country.
"Albania is lacking the rule of law, independent justice, independent media, and so I don't think if we stop protesting the problems will go away," Rama told Deutsche Welle. "I just think that if we stop protesting the problems will no longer be visible to Brussels."
Albania applied for EU membership last year, and Brussels agreed in November to proceed with its application. However, the EU has already warned that if the country's political stalemate persisted, it could stop the country from reaching the political standards required for formal membership talks to begin.
"Of course [the stalemate] damages the image of the country, and this is certainly regrettable," Interior Minister Lulzim Basha said.
"But the government has bent over backwards to be conciliatory, it has offered everything in its power that does not violate the constitution or the laws of this country. But it takes two to tango."
Thousands lined the streets of Tirana last week to call for a vote recount
Prior to the hunger strike, the opposition Socialists rallied public support for huge street demonstrations in the capital Tirana last week. They said some 200,000 people attended, official estimates of the turnout are far lower.
However, economic hardship is as much of a sore point among the electorate as alleged voting irregularities. Unlike many in Europe, Albania's economy recorded growth in 2009, but the International Monetary Fund expects that improvement to reduce from three percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) to two percent this year.
The IMF has also urged the country to reduce its budget deficit to the prescribed EU limit of three percent of GDP from its current level of seven percent. The country's total national debt is around 60 percent of GDP.
However, for months now the government has struggled to legislate at all because the Socialist Party controls nearly half of the seats in parliament.
Twenty years after trading Communism for Democracy, Albania - once Europe's most reclusive country - is still struggling to present a stable, democratic face to the rest of Europe.
Author: Mark Lowen/msh
Editor: Chuck Penfold