TIRANA, Albania — Sunday's parliamentary election in this poor and forgotten corner of Europe has boiled down to a simple test of what Albanians fear most: the once-omnipotent Socialists or more of the suffering that is the legacy of their 48-year rule.
Opposition politicians with the pro-Western Democratic Party are predicting victory, but they were equally confident a year ago, when Albania's first multiparty election handed them a stunning defeat.
Yet much has happened to give voters pause to reconsider. The economy is a shambles, and crime is epidemic. Unemployment is estimated at 60%, and paralyzed factories and farms have left Albania's 3.3 million people dependent on foreign food aid.
"Our motto is to give hope to the people, not concrete promises," said Genc Rulli, the Democrats' chief economic strategist and a candidate in Tirana, the capital. "People have naive ideas about what will happen after the election. Those with high expectations may be disappointed."
How Albania weathers its bleak immediate future depends on the generosity of developed Western countries. Some, such as the United States, have hinted they will help only if Albania ends Communist rule.
That message is believed to have provided a great boost for the opposition. But in a backward country scarred by four decades of isolation and despotism, allegiance to the Socialist Party may prove stronger than rivals imagine.
Two-thirds of Albanian voters live in the remote and mountainous countryside where the Socialists have been entrenched for decades.
Socialist monopolies on the media and transportation have been broken since last year's election, but the balance of campaigning power still favors the ruling party. The entire Democratic Party, with candidates in all 100 districts, has only six vehicles at its disposal.
Albania's president for the last seven years, former Communist hard-liner Ramiz Alia, has lately embraced democratic reform and remains popular in the southern power base of his dictatorial predecessor and mentor, Enver Hoxha.
But Sali Berisha, the Democratic Party leader and likely president if the opposition wins, is a charismatic figure and forceful speaker who claims that even rural voters are abandoning the ex-Communists' side.
"Many of them have changed their minds. We can see it in the faces of the people coming to our election rallies, even in the south," said Berisha, a 47-year-old cardiologist. "We are confident of a majority."
Opinion polls conducted before the March 31, 1991, election proved far off the mark, raising doubts about new surveys again showing the Democratic Party solidly in the lead.
"We are confident this time, but we are also being cautious" about making predictions, said Genc Pollo, Democratic Party spokesman. "The Socialists can still have a lot of influence in the countryside."
Socialist Party spokesman Sabaudin Kodra conceded that the ruling force is unsure it can win a majority this time, but argued that it must be included in a governing coalition to prevent further erosion of social order.
"No political party alone can govern this country. We need cooperation and consensus to rebuild the trust of the people," he insisted, accusing the Democrats of deliberately scuttling a working coalition last fall to force new elections.
Less than two months after last year's election, the Socialists--then known as the Albanian Party of Labor--were forced into an all-party coalition by recurring outbreaks of violence and unrest. But the Democrats pulled out in December, leaving the country under caretaker government.
Runoffs in some districts are expected to be necessary after Sunday's vote, and it may be unclear for more than a week whether any one party won a majority of the 140-seat assembly.