Photo: Flickr, Bruce Krasting

Albanian democracy needs a challenger to its undisputed leader

10/07/2017 -  Nicola Pedrazzi

(This article was produced and published in partnership between OBC Transeuropa and Kosovo 2.0 )

Four years ago, in 2013, it seemed like Albania had undergone a colorful revolution: It fell asleep blue and woke up violet. After two decades of the limelight, Sali Berisha, the old guide of the Democratic Party was defeated by Edi Rama, “the socialist artist” (as he was labelled both at home and abroad, in many European countries).

Four years later, in 2017, Rama’s second victory looks more mundane. The winners’ statements are placid, the losers do not protest the results, and the Albanian people recognize only one, indisputable leader. Despite the drastic drop in the electoral turnout — a fact that says a lot about Albanian democracy — this silent and expected victory probably marks the peak of the “Rama era.”

But after the summit, the descent follows…

To vote or not to vote?

With Albania being a parliamentary Republic, Albanians don’t chose a president, they vote for their representatives within the Parliament. The Albanian electoral system is based on proportional regional representations: The country is divided into 12 constituencies, and the 140 seats available in the chamber are proportionally distributed to the parties that exceed the three percent threshold in each constituency.

This explains how the Socialist Party obtained an absolute majority in terms of seats (74) while at a national level it stands at 48 percent of the vote. It also makes clearer why it is a pity that the list of candidates are compiled by party secretaries, because in this way the political system chooses politicians, and citizens have no chance to indicate who should represent their voice.

Considering Albanian electoral law, and having seen how Albanian politicians use those rules to stay in power regardless of electoral outcomes, the lowest turnout in the history of Albanian democracy (43 percent) becomes less surprising. It may even be considered as a symptom of a growing democratic consciousness.

But despite this structural problem, this drop in turnout remains remarkable. Compared to turnout in 2013 (53 percent), 160,000 more Albanian citizens have chosen to stay at home: Over 3.4 million were entitled to vote, but only 1.57 million went to the polling station. Why? Many reasons can be captured in one explanation: This time Albanian citizens did not have real political options. No competition, no turnout.

It seems like a thousand years ago, but in recent months the Democratic Party had even threatened to not take part in the election. Lulzim Basha, the party’s leader, seemingly reasoning: ‘Why should I run a race that I cannot win?’

In order to avoid a certain defeat, the Democratic Party did not provide any alternative political platform. Instead, it preferred to play at holding a “protest” all along the main boulevard in Tirana, pitching a huge tent in front of the Prime Minister’s Office.

The deadlock was broken on May 18, just after a semi-public agreement between the two leaders. In exchange for the participation of the losers in his certain victory, Rama gave Basha guarantees, including a substantive government reshuffle (Democratic Party ministers were appointed and will be in charge until September), as well as a one-week postponement of the elections, then scheduled for June 25.

While European governments and EU institutions applauded this “return to democracy,” the Albanian people had a clear vision of what to expect from the next legislature: The Democratic and Socialist parties sharing power in an EU blessed government of “national unity.”

In this scenario, the following years would almost certainly be hindered by the implementation of justice reforms approved one year ago and crucial to the opening of EU accession negotiations, causing ruptures between politics and the judiciary. It would also finally exclude from government the Socialist Movement for Integration (LSI) — a crony party, which in the last eight years has ruled both with Berisha and with Rama.

It’s not by chance that its leader Ilir Meta, the awkward former ally of both parties, has been appointed by the outgoing Parliament as the President of the Republic of Albania. Four years ago Meta was fundamental for the victory of the Socialist coalition (the Socialist Party alongside LSI). Four years later, it will be him — as head of state, from his golden and safe political exile — giving Rama the assignment to create a new government. Albanians who did not vote presumably refused to give legitimacy to this predictable power redistribution.

An unquestionable victory (for the leader)

If the prediction of a grand coalition kept people away from the polls, the Rama victory has gone beyond the Socialist party’s expectations. Gaining eight seats from 2013 (from 66 to 74), the party won an absolute majority. This time no alliances are necessary, and neither the Democratic Party or the LSI will be fundamental. If Rama wants, he can head a government supported just by his own party.

It has to be admitted that this possibility is something completely new for Albania. Nevertheless, the new government will take office in September, and the summer time may bring wisdom.

The day after elections, Rama stated that the Socialist Party will not ask for anybody’s help; nevertheless, little by little, the rhetoric of victory has made way for “speeches of responsibility.”

Should he really lead the country alone? Or in the light of the hard measures that any Albanian government would need to take in the next four years to step forward in European integration, would he do better by sharing his power and responsibilities? Which weight is wiser to bear? The fatigue of a combined marriage? Or the fatigue of solitude? This doubt is legitimate, and is far from closed.

After all, a final answer is not requested now. In the four years of his parliamentary term, if needed, such an undisputed leader will have the chance to change his mind, creating new majorities.

Two years ago, K2.0 published an analysis regarding the first two years of Rama’s mandate. Concerning “Rama-politics,” those doubts, perplexities and criticisms are still there. It’s even more important to keep them in mind now, with his leadership so undisputed.

Having said that, it has to be underlined that this electoral success stems from the credibility that Rama has accumulated over four hard years, in an extremely difficult political arena — even leaving aside the credit provided by international media (just to give one recent example, the last “Biennale di Venezia” hosted Rama’s work, and Italian State TV produced this unbearable spot-interview).

It is a fact that “before Rama,” Albania was not a candidate state to the EU, reforms in the judiciary were far off, Lazarat’s farmers were cultivating cannabis in the open air, tax evasion on light bills was higher and private universities and city halls were above any reasonable number.

Of course, the detractors suggest that in 2017, all these advances have stemmed either from time passing or international pressure, rather than from enlightened policies. But still, Rama and no other was in power, even surviving through a tumultuous coalition with the LSI. Now, Rama and no other enjoys the fruits of his tenacity.

A problematic defeat (for a country)

On the other side of the river, Lulzim Basha is probably crying, staring at the flowing water of a forever lost future. His personal defeat was huge. Never in this short democratic history have the Albanian right wing done so badly, polling at 28 percent at the national level, and going from 49 to 43 seats in the Parliament.

Recognizing his responsibilities, Basha resigned as the leader Democratic Party immediately after counting. In the next months, a new race for leadership will determine his destiny. On the one hand, he is Berisha’s chosen successor, and may be confirmed as leader again despite the fact that he has always done poorly in elections (two years ago, local elections had already shown his inadequacies). On the other hand, this internal competition may be a good moment not just for Democratic Party affiliates, but for the entire country, for the health of Albanian “democracy.”

If the Albanian people want to erase the quotation marks from the word democracy in the next four years, a strong alternative should relieve the loneliness of Rama’s power. In order to become citizens of a European state, the Albanian people desperately need a real choice, a competition for power based not just on factional interests, but on different political values and programs.

If this does not happen, in the long term Rama’s victory will become bad news even for his supporters. And the majority of non-voters will become even more absolute.

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