By Benet Koleka
TIRANA (Reuters) - Albania's prime minister for the past eight years, Sali Berisha faces the fight of his political life on Sunday when the NATO member state holds an election watched closely by the West less for the result than the conduct.
Concern is high that the impoverished Balkan country will again fail to deliver a first free and fair vote in more than two decades since the fall of communism, further stalling its progress towards membership of the European Union and potentially spelling trouble on the streets.
A political dispute has left Albania's top electoral body, the Central Election Commission (CEC), short-staffed, meaning it will be unable to certify the result. Western diplomats are warning of voter coercion.
The last election, in 2009, triggered opposition protests in which four people were shot dead by security forces.
A Western diplomat compared elections in the Adriatic coastal state to a Quentin Tarantino movie, in which a bunch of people point guns at each other.
"Even if half of what we're hearing is true, that indicates to me a fairly extensive campaign to coerce people to vote in a certain way," the envoy said, on condition of anonymity. "That is, of course, troubling."
Berisha, a fiery former cardiologist, has dominated Albanian political life since the collapse of the Stalinist regime in 1991. At 68, defeat on Sunday could spell the end of his career.
Opinion polls are unreliable, but point to a narrow victory for the opposition Socialist Party of former Tirana mayor Edi Rama, 48, who has been buoyed by an alliance with a small leftist party previously in coalition with Berisha.
The Socialists and Berisha's Democratic Party differ little on Albania's strategic goal of joining the EU or its staunchly pro-Western policy.
But their confrontational relationship does not sit easy with Brussels or Albania's NATO allies, notably Washington.
Rama pulled the opposition's three representatives from the seven-member CEC in April after the coalition government sacked a member whose party, the leftists, had allied with Rama's Socialists for the election.
The U.S. ambassador, Alexander Arvizu, said the CEC risked turning into a "charade". A court will have to certify the election result instead.
The EU warned this week that the election was a "crucial test" of Albania's democratic institutions and its progress towards the 27-nation bloc, which Croatia will join in July. Albania applied four years ago to come aboard but has not yet been made an official candidate for membership.
"Come on, Albania! It's time!" Arvizu implored viewers of an Albanian talk-show. "It's time to discard some of the old ways of doing things. It's time to embrace the new reality, to do things that really are in the interest of the citizens, reflect the will of the people."
The next government will take on an economy feeling the effects of the crisis in the euro zone, particularly neighboring Greece and Italy where some 1 million Albanian migrants work to send money home.
While Albania avoided recession, remittances are down and the World Bank and International Monetary Fund have voiced concern at public debt of 62.9 percent of output and a budget shortfall that was up 40 percent in the first quarter from the same period last year.
It could yet be months, however, before a new government takes office, with challenges to the election result almost certain. A system by which party rank-and-file count the ballots has repeatedly led to disputes and delays.
"The counting process is obviously at the mercy of the two sides," said the Western diplomat. "No one should pretend that the Albanian system ensures a free and fair vote. It is a deeply flawed system."
(Editing by Matt Robinson/Mark Heinrich)