TIRANA (Reuters) - Tens of thousands of Albanians protested on Saturday against tax hikes in next year's budget, accusing the Socialist-led government of impoverishing Albanians and falling short on its promises.
Filling Tirana's main street, they carried banners protesting against lack of jobs, tax rises and what would amount to a rise of electricity prices next year.
Prime Minister Edi Rama's government has launched sweeping reforms since coming to power 14 months ago. The European Union granted Albania candidate status in June.
Facing a high public debt and budget deficit, the government signed a 330.9 million euro ($409.92 million) deal with the International Monetary Fund, passed tax hikes and started an anti-crime drive.
"I am here against unemployment, higher taxes and the rise of power prices. It's too much. All over the world, it took a long time to achieve the standards they want to secure in two years," Elton Lika, a young unemployed lawyer, told Reuters.
Lulzim Basha, head of the opposition Democratic Party, accused Rama of arrogance in a speech to the crowd from a rostrum outside the prime minister's office.
He joked that Rama, who was inaugurating a communist-era nuclear shelter turned into a museum as the protesters filed past his office, had gone to the bunker to avoid facing them.
"I ask you not to make the lives of Albanians harder," Basha urged Rama, his voice hoarse from speaking. "Why aren't Albanians living better when they pay more?"
Rama wrote on Facebook that Albanians should not think the country could develop without hard work. Electricity theft and illegal building should stop, he said.
The Democrats have boycotted parliament since June after one of their lawmakers was punched twice by a fellow Socialist lawmaker, adding to the polarization and lack of dialogue.
Reporting By Benet Koleka; Editing by Tom Heneghan