Albania will on Sunday hold bitterly disputed municipal polls that have snowballed into a democratic crisis, with the opposition boycotting the vote and refusing to recognise its results.
The tense election run-up has seen bouts of violence as opposition supporters attacked polling stations around the country in a bid to destroy ballot materials, setting fire to two schools in the process.
Turmoil erupted in February when opposition politicians, from the right to the centre-left, walked out of parliament to launch street protests against Socialist Prime Minister Edi Rama.
They accuse him of crime links and manipulating elections, which he denies.
The dispute deepened when President Ilir Meta stepped in this month and announced a cancellation of the municipal poll due to the unrest.
But Rama and election authorities have decided to forge ahead with the voting regardless.
After the president tried to reschedule the poll for October, Rama wrote on Twitter: "June 30 is the only election date".
Analysts say the aftermath of the election is likely to be messy and could further intensify the headache.
"The political crisis has not yet reached its peak," Lutfi Dervishi, a media expert at the Media Institute in Tirana, said.
Political analyst Aleksander Cipa described the vote as a "test of Albania\’s democratic maturity" — something which is under review by European Union member states who are weighing whether to open accession talks later this year.
"Any act of violence would be harmful to Albania\’s image, its democracy and its political class," Cipa said.
– West urges calm –
Western powers have been calling for calm this week, with the US embassy and EU delegation warning Friday against any violence or obstruction of voting.
The Organization for Security and Co-operating in Europe (OSCE), which is sending observers to monitor the poll, also called for the "utmost restraint".
"Any attempt to derail the democratic process through violent action stalls the progress of Albania and stains the country\’s international reputation," it said in a statement.
Voting for mayors and local councils is set to take place in 61 municipalities in the country of around 2.8 million.
In 31 districts, there is only one Socialist candidate running while the rest have a contest with independent candidates or those from smaller parties.
Opposition mayors control slightly under half of the municipalities.
Some 7,000 police will be deployed to monitor the process, according to authorities.
The political turbulence is brewing at a particularly sensitive moment for Albania as it waits for a response on its EU application.
The bloc was initially supposed to make a decision in June but has postponed it until October.
Since the fall of a communist dictatorship in 1991, Albania has struggled to nurture a healthy democracy.
Extreme partisanship and frequent accusations of corruption and vote buying have undermined public faith in politics.