Albanian Elections Give Grounds for Optimism

17 July 2013 | Focus | English


Albania’s parliamentary elections, which took place on 23 June, offer a glimmer of hope. The smooth transfer of power from the centre-right Democratic Party (PD), in government since 2005, to the opposition Socialists and their allies is a welcome sign of maturity in a political system beset by bitter feuds and excessive polarisation. The Western Balkan republic has now cleared an important hurdle on its way to the EU. Candidate status is within reach, after a long wait of four years. Still, much depends on how the new Prime Minister Edi Rama handles reforms to consolidate democratic institutions, upgrade governance and kick start economic growth.

Albania has always been a bit of an outlier within the Western Balkans. As a rule, pundits focus on Yugoslavia’s successors, overlooking their neighbour to the southwest. Yet Albania shares a lot of commonalities with the rest of the post-communist countries of the area. Weak statehood has consistently hobbled the entrenchment and deepening of democratic rule, and progress in the economy. But it is not ethnic heterogeneity which is the stumbling block but rather fragmented, confrontational politics coupled with a winner-take-all mentality at the top of public life. 

Sali Berisha, the outgoing prime minister, has come to symbolise the problems inherent in Albanian political life. Once the leader of anti-communist opposition, Berisha grew into a strongman who concentrated too much power in his hands, following his return to the state’s helm in 2005. The 2009 elections ended in a tie but the PD managed to orchestrate a coalition. The Socialist Party (PS) boycotted parliament for a year blaming the government for electoral fraud. The opposition did change their mind later urged by the European Parliament but 2011 saw even greater escalation. On 21 January police heavy-handedly tackled anti-government rallies leaving 4 dead in front of the prime minister’s office and many more injured. Meanwhile, Berisha accused his opponents of attempting a coup d’état. Local elections in May were fought bitterly and a recount of the vote in Tirana took the mayorship away from Edi Rama, who was initially 10 votes ahead of his PD contender. In July 2012 Socialist MPs were absent when Bujar Nishani was voted President of the Republic. There was no end to the tensions, despite the EU’s repeated calls for moderation and dialogue. 

There were not many encouraging signs in the run up to the June vote either. The Socialists withdrew their representatives from the 7-member Central Electoral Commission. They also blew the whistle with regards to irregularities in the voters’ lists (3.3 million names included in the roll as against 2.8 million registered on the census, and government pressure. Nationalist rhetoric was on the rise, with Berisha even flirting with the idea of a “Greater Albania” in late 2012 – and alerting both the US and the EU. In the town of Laç an opposition activist was shot dead on election day. After polling stations closed, both the PS and PD hastened to declare victory, bringing back the spectre of post-election turmoil as in 2009 and 2011.

In the end, what prevented another crisis was the extensive international presence together with the large margin of votes in favour of the opposition bloc, the Alliance for a European Albania. Back in April, Rama struck a deal with Ilir Meta, whose Movement for Socialist Integration (LSI) had formerly been allied with the Democrats. Together with LSI, the Socialists won 82 seats out of 140. Berisha had no choice but to concede defeat. That happened only after several days of mediation by top-level outsiders, including MEP Eduard Kukan, who headed the European Parliament’s observer mission. Seen in perspective, Berisha’s decision is momentous. Last time he surrendered power in 1997 he was unseated from the presidency by a popular riot triggered by the collapse of the pyramid schemes. His departure from government – as well as from the PD leadership – is a turning point for Albania.

The EU has a reason to be cautiously optimistic. It singled out problem-free elections as a chief precondition for granting Albania long overdue candidate status. Albania lodged a formal application in April 2009 but the bid was rejected in the autumn of 2010. The European Commission cited concerns over “the effectiveness and stability of democratic institutions,” a thinly-veiled reference to the deadlock caused by party-political warfare at home. While Tirana made it to NATO membership and even scored a key success as EU interior ministers abolished Schengen visas in December 2010, it has lagged behind neighbours such as Montenegro and even Serbia on the accession path. The country was relegated to the bottom league together with Macedonia, blocked by Greece over the name dispute, Bosnia-Herzegovina, paralysed by ethnic bickering, and Kosovo, taking its maiden steps towards Brussels. Encouragingly, Albania’s recent election is judged by both the European Parliament’s mission and the OSCE monitors as meeting the standards. Getting candidate status will be an opportunity for Albania to inject fresh energy into the process and narrow the gap as much as possible. Not forgetting that support for EU membership remains very high in the Balkan country. 

But ultimately citizens will judge Rama not by what he brings back from Brussels but by how well the economy performs. Throughout the crisis in Europe Albania continued growing at above 3% GDP but 2012 saw a dramatic slowdown to under 1%. The economy has taken a hit by exposure to the recession-ridden Eurozone. Up to one third of Albania’s labour force is based in Italy and Greece, two of the EU members struggling over the past years. Remittances have gone down, as a result, taking its toll on consumption, investment and growth. Italian and Greek institutions play a critical role in the banking sector, while the Eurozone accounts for the overwhelming majority of trade volumes. Similar to everyone else in South East Europe, Albania is vulnerable to the recession suffocating its core partners within the EU. Thus far the country has succeeded in preserving macroeconomic stability but unemployment is at 13%, and possibly higher given emigration, the grey sector and so on. The new government in Tirana is certainly not in for an easy ride. To rebound, Albania has to do a better job in strengthening institutions. That would mean a u-turn on narrow-minded factionalism and partisanship. A change at the top is no doubt refreshing but it is simply not enough. As elsewhere, the EU will lead the way by providing the external push for reform. However, it is up to Albanian elites and the citizenry at large to make the most of the opportunity open