- Associated Press - Monday, March 2, 2020

TIRANA, Albania (AP) - Thousands of Albanians rallied on Monday against the country’s left-wing government, responding to a call from the president who accuses it of violating the constitution and of links to organized crime.

Ilir Meta’s protest was supported by the opposition, which wants fresh elections to resolve the political crisis.

Meta accuses Prime Minister Edi Rama’s Socialist Party government of violating the country’s constitution by exceeding its powers, and also of taking his own powers by nominating candidates for the six vacant seats on the nine-person Constitutional Court.

The Court has not been functioning since July 2018 after most of its judges were fired following a vetting process.

Both Meta and the opposition claim that a justice system reform approved three years ago to root out bribery and ensure that judges and prosecutors are independent from politics - part of the effort to embrace European Union standards - has failed.

In a symbolic gesture Meta signed a decree annulling a law on the swearing-in ceremony of the Constitutional Court judges, recently passed by the parliament, and threatened to dissolve the parliament.

“This spring of red and black (the national flag colors) will not stop until the re-installation of your sovereignty,” he said.

Rama said, however, that a president in Albania is not entitled to issue such a decree, ironically saying that Meta could also “decree declaring war on the United States but the parliament would not recognize that.”

The political turmoil comes as the Balkan nation of nearly 3 million people has been enacting reforms in hopes of getting a green light to launch EU membership talks.

On Monday the European Commission issued a revised progress report on Albania and North Macedonia saying that “Both countries have delivered further tangible and sustainable results and therefore the Commission’s recommendation to open accession negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia remains valid.”

The European Council is expected to meet later this month.

Since taking the post three years ago Meta, former leader of the Socialist Movement for Integration Party, a small left-wing grouping now in opposition, has always been a vocal opponent of the government.

The Socialists, who dominate parliament, have launched impeachment proceedings against Meta, the first in post-communist Albania, stemming from his attempt to cancel last year’s municipal elections.

The parliament is expected to produce a report this month that will likely ask for Meta’s ouster.

The rally ended peacefully.

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