By Albert Rakipi PhD.
Any hopes that the Parliamentary Elections of the 25th of April would break the vicious circle of contested election results turning into the predominant cause of conflict between political parties in post-communist Albania have been quashed.
On the 25th of April, the Democratic Party managed to secure 59 parliamentary seats. The frequent chants prophesizing a landslide victory slowly died out on that day, giving way to silence and eventually to accusations, that in securing the number of seats necessary for a third mandate, the Socialist Party had in fact orchestrated an “electoral massacre”. In all likelihood, it seems that the Opposition Parties are intent on disputing the election results.
Shortly thereafter, The Democratic Party requested a repeat of the elections in 9 out of 12 electoral districts, citing widespread electoral fraud and procedural issues during the vote-counting process. In a preliminary report, foreign observers have identified the “absence of a clear division between the ruling party and the state” together with “pervasive practices of vote-buying” as fundamental problems which threaten the integrity of the elections. These findings mirror the allegations of the Opposition Parties, namely that the Socialist Party has instrumentalized the public administration, misused public funds and called upon the help on local strongmen and other people of influence in an effort to buy votes.
This Article seeks to analyze and provide an answer to two important issues that stem from this latest development. On the onset, it will seek to clarify the effect of the contested electoral process on the stability of the system of governance. Parliamentary elections represent an opportunity to examine the functionality and adherence of a political system to democratic norms. Against this backdrop, this article will provide a critical examination of the current status of Albanian Democracy, 30 years after the fall of communism.
Where we come from
During the electoral campaign, the Prime-Minister made a remarkable statement to voters. “There is no program, we will keep moving forward.” This statement accurately encapsulates a unique moment in the political history of modern liberal societies, where the Prime-Minister is re-elected for a third term without being able to tell citizens neither what he has accomplished, nor what he plans to accomplish. Insofar as the Socialist Party’s track record may be used as a benchmark, an examination of the most important socio-political developments during the last 8 years of socialist rule may provide some insights of the government’s ability to really move things forward.
During the last 8 years, more than 400,000 Albanian citizens have left their home-country in the hope of building a future for themselves elsewhere. A 2018 study by the UNDP ranks Albania at the top of the world-rankings on the emigration of tertiary-educated individuals. A predominant majority of those who leave are part of a talented generation of trained professionals, scientific experts and young academics who would have otherwise formed the backbone of the Albanian middle-class. Recent polls indicate that about 90% of young adults want to emigrate, and officials statistics show that the number of Albanian asylum-seekers in the EU has increased by 30% percent during the last two years. Albanians are on top of the list for the number of asylum applications submitted to EU member states, ranking second only to applicants from war-torn Syria.
Immigration from developing countries is a pervasive phenomenon in today’s globalized world.
Creating a life for oneself in a foreign country is however not an easy feat. Statistical studies demonstrate again and again that mass-emigration is not necessary linked to low levels of development, but to a perceived sense of hopelessness and inability to “move forward” in one’s home country. In Albania, the rate of emigration is considerably higher when compared to its neighboring countries. In light of a sclerotic labor market, the lack of foreign investments, the inadequate protection of property rights and the creation of unfavorable conditions for SME’s, emigration is the last alternative.
Thirty years after the fall of communism Albania exhibits all the characteristics of a Rentier State, whose sustenance depends less and less on the remittances of the 50% of the population which has emigrated. Its sustenance is increasingly dependent on the profit that it accrues from “renting out” its territories to criminal groups which have established within Albania safe corridors for the international traffic of human beings and drugs, erected countless cannabis farms and which invest in Albania’s now “flourishing” construction sector in order to launder their profits. Such organizations operate in the grey zone are closely connected to the government. Public contracts and tenders on the other hand are almost always given to a small group of companies, although in several cases it has been established that they lacked capacities and experience to fulfill their contractual obligations.
As per a report of Transparency International, Albania represents a clear case of a captured state.
Before coming to power in 2012, the Socialist Party promised to provide free public healthcare. In 2020, the public healthcare system finds itself in a miserable condition, leading individuals to turn to private hospitals which provide treatments which are extremely expensive and unaffordable to close to 90% of the population.
During its first years in power, the socialist government did implement measures which led to the closure of several private universities, which – rather than being in the business of education – serviced the Albanian youth with freshly printed diplomas in exchange for money and material goods. Despite the reforms initiated by the government, the education system remains corrupt and substandard. A frequent complaint of IT students in public universities is that the concepts and programming languages taught as part of the curriculum are so outdated that they are no longer of practical relevance in the modern IT industry.
The reform of the Justice System on the other hand had created great expectations due to the fact that the initiative found bipartisan support and because its implementation is supervised by the international community. Independent experts claim that throughout the last 5 years both parties have sought to undermine the reform or manipulate the implementation process for their benefit. The just dismissal of members of the judicial system through the vetting process left Albania without a constitutional and high court. The resulting lack of checks and balances was used by the government to its advantage, as it frequently passed legislation which could otherwise have been deemed unconstitutional.
Political conflict, disagreements and clashes, that are in fact central features of post-communist Albania, intensified during the second mandate of the socialist government. The Opposition accused the government of manipulating the elections in 2017, made allegations of systemic corruption towards and organized massive protests. In a rather extreme decision, the Opposition decided to leave parliament, effectively rendering useless an institution that is essential for the functioning of a democratic system. Furthermore, the Opposition boycotted the 2019 local elections, which were of course completely won by the Socialist Government.
Throughout the last four years and especially during the last two years the Socialists, who are in power since 2013, managed to put all independent state institutions under their control. It is not hard to understand that Albanian democracy presently lacks a system of checks and balances. In addition to parliament, the government has placed the media and civil-society groups under “democratic control”, thus reinforcing cleat autocratic tendencies. International experts have increasingly pointed out to the fact there has been a sort of governmentalization of the state, that is the use of state institutions and resources in order to illegitimately advance the personal interests of those in charge of government.
Albania’s accession to NATO 2009, the removal of the visa-regime with EU Member States and the granting of the candidate status for EU membership in 2014 represent high-points in Albania’s International Relations. However, during the last 8 years the Albanian government has failed to develop closer ties with international parties, except with Turkey, and this can be explained by Prime-Minister Rama’s close relationship with President Erdogan. In light of the Albanian government’s failure to uphold and enforce the rule of law, a “conditio sine qua non” expected to be fulfilled by EU candidate states, Albania’s accession negotiations have come to a halt.
If one is to consider all the above-mentioned facts and draw a conclusion as to the government’s performance in its last eight years in power, the Prime-Minister’s decision not to count his victories during the campaign would not seem so strange after all.
Instead, the Socialist Party sought to demonize the candidates of the opposition parties and present them as a threat. This strategy was markedly different from that of the Democratic Party, which presented voters with a clear program detailing their solutions to all of the important issues listed in the previous section.
The Prime-Minister told the people that this election provided them with an opportunity to choose good over evil, with the latter in this case being personified by Sali Berisha and President Meta. The Socialist Party’s electoral campaign sought to construct and reinforce a simple and effective narrative, namely that the leader of the opposition Mr. Basha was being controlled by the two evil master-puppeteers of Albanian politics. Mr. Berisha is the historic leader of the first anti-communist opposition in 1991 who has served one term as President and two times as Prime-Minister. Mr. Berisha officially resigned as leader of the Democratic Party in 2013 after losing the elections. Despite this fact, he continued to wield some influence behind the scenes, although several commentators argue that this influence within the party is weaning. Ilir Meta served as Prime-Minister during a previous socialist government and, together with a faction within the Socialist Party founded and led the Socialist Movement for Integration before becoming President. In his role as president, Mr. Meta was actively engaged against the government throughout the electoral campaign in order to “protect democracy and its future in Albania.”
The main message of the Socialist Party to the people was that a victory of the Opposition would signify the return of the dictator (Mr. Berisha) and the corrupt Meta couple, referring to the President and his wife, Monika Kryemadhi, who currently serves as leader of the Socialist Party for Integration, founded by her husband. During the campaign the Socialist Party sought to gather support from the international community by presenting the opposition as the enemies of the justice reform.
Mr. Basha had made it clear in interviews as well as in the program of the Democratic Party, that the justice reform would certainly be carried out and might only be subject to very minor adjustments which are necessary in order to ensure that the reform may be implemented. In fact, the Leader of the Opposition Lulzim Basha built and led a modern election campaign backed by a concrete program wherein a detailed plan for Albania’s economic recovery was laid out. Mr. Basha promised to achieve economic growth through a redesign of the tax-system, by attracting foreign investments and through the use of incentives and offered in his program concrete proposals to stop the massive migration of Albanian youth. The plan also contained proposals for reforms in healthcare, education and reforms in the governance system based on principles of good-governance which would ensure that there was a clear line of division between organized crime and organized politics.
The ruling party is the state.
On the 25th of April 2021, the situation in Albania looked much different when compared to March 1991, the year when Albania sought to hold free and fair elections for the first time. The situation in 2021 is however quite similar to that of 30 years ago in one crucial regard: A political culture which equates the party in power with the state still exists. As the first pluralist elections were held in 1991, the people of Albania were presented with a choice between the Communist Party and the Opposition. The latter however was not simply running against a political party, but against the entirety of the state institutions and the influence that they wield. The Opposition was running against the police, the public administration, the secret service, the state-ran-media and its propaganda machine, as well as the financial resources that they possessed.
During the last few years, the political landscape in Albania has regressed to that of 30 years ago. In 2019, the opposition parties decided to leave parliament. This was a grave strategic error, which enabled the government to change the electoral code with the help of a surrogate Parliament in such a way as to benefit the Socialist Party during the elections. This change ensured that the Socialist Party would receive at least 5 more seats in Parliament. As it did in 1991, in 2021 the Socialist Party controlled almost 100% of the local administration, with the exception of the Municipality of Shkoder. This is yet another strategic mistake of the opposition, which boycotted the 2019 local elections.
But the fact that the government was in complete control of parliament and the local administration cannot by itself lead us to the conclusion that in these elections the opposition was running against the state. And when the head of OSBE/ODHIR, Ambassador Gacek stated that in these elections there was no clear line of division between the ruling party and the state, she is surely not referring to the fact that the government used a rubber-stamp parliament to change the rules of the game, nor to the governments total control of the local administration. Both these “victories” were handed to the government by the opposition itself. The point of the matter is that the socialist government instrumentalized state institutions in order to pressure and convince citizens into selling their votes.
The grave incident in Elbasan where a citizen was killed raises serious doubts as to the impartiality of the police and the prosecution services. Independent local and international news outlets published evidence that prove their lack of impartiality and event showcase the absence of a divisive line between the police and members of criminal gangs. Like in 1991, the “institution of fear” was used , with members of the administration being threatened to vote for the government. In 1991 the Communist Party was sure that the top administration would for the party simply because they were a militant and politicized administration. Thirty years later the government was not so sure about the loyalty of the administration, even though during its first three years in power it undertook a purge to cleanse the public administration of employees who were not ideologically aligned with the socialist party. This time they needed to be reminded by Pandeli Majko that if the Democrats came to power, they would lose their jobs.
A change of power in Albania has been historically accompanied by deep purges in the public administration, even though a civil service law whose purpose is to dissuade new governments from laying off employees for political reasons has been in place for quite a while. Imagine the devastating effect this phenomenon would have on the functionality of the state, if it were to take place in Italy, where governments have changed at least 50 times in the last 60 years. According to official statistics, the Albanian Government has paid 110 Million euros as compensation to employees of the public administration whom it illegitimately fired during the last 6 years.
In addition to using the public administration, in which the number of employees rose considerably in the months leading up to the election, the Socialist Party also made use of a database containing highly sensitive and confidential information regarding 910,000 citizens living in Tirana. So in addition to strong-men the government also used state structures and resources in order to buy votes. According to Open Data the government handed out 125 Million euros for people whose property had been damaged during the earthquake last years. This represent a 500% increase in the hand-out rate when compared to the previous year.
Actually 62 Percent of Albanians think that the current government cannot be changed through free and fair elections. The first country to come to mind when thinking that a country’s government cannot be changed through elections is… Russia.
Social-Democrats marching in Tirana and vote buying allegations.
The dice was thrown on the 25th of April 2021. On the 28th of April, the Socialist Party triumphantly celebrated their victory on Skanderbeg square. On the 1st of May, citizens were able to witness the Social Democrats marching in Tirana on expensive cars, decorated with the Flags of a long-forgotten party which had almost been cast into oblivion after the 1992 elections. The Social-Democratic party, founded in 1991, was the brainchild of a caste of intellectuals, academics, scientists, journalists and artists who sought to challenge the totalitarian rule of the communist party. Having ran a successful campaign in 1992, the SDP managed to secure 7 seats in Parliament. Its new-found success was rather short-lived however, as political infighting led to its eventual decimation. Under the direction of Tomë Doshi, a successful businessmen, the SDP managed to capture 3 seats in the 2021 Parliamentary Elections, although the man responsible for SDP’s spectacular rise in popularity resigned during the vote counting process, just as SDP’s electoral success was becoming a surety.
Local observes opined that Mr. Doshi’s resignation provided the Prime-Minister with an opportunity to form a parliamentary majority in the event that the Socialist-Party would not have been able to capture the required number of seats. In 2018, Mr. Doshi was declared a persona-non-grata by the US State Department, and during the electoral campaign the Prime-Minister assured the Albanian public, and perhaps more importantly, the American ambassador, that Mr. Doshi would not form part of his government. Mr. Doshi’s resignation would facilitate the forming of a coalition between the SP and the SDP, in the event that the letter would emerge as a king-maker in the parliamentary elections.
If one leaves aside questions as to Mr. Rama’s and Tomë Doshi’s purported backstage-dealings for a moment, another important issue which merits discussion comes to light. What could possibly explain the electoral success of a nearly defunct Party under the guidance of this extremely wealthy and successful businessman? The SDP managed to elect three of its candidates in the districts of Tiranē and Shkodër. But Mr. Doshi’s party also managed to gather a considerable number of votes in the small, south-eastern municipality of Pustec, home to a Macedonian minority. When asked about this rather strange development, Mr. Lutfi Dervishi, a well-known journalist, stated for A1 CNN news that this was “surely the result of the dissemination of social-democratic ideals in Pustec.” The dissemination of social-democratic ideas may come as a result of the Maoist theory “the village surrounds the city”. From Pustec, these social-democratic ideals may go on to take root in important industrial cities where principles of social-democracy have been historically developed.
It has never been easier, yet at the same time more difficult to prove allegations of electoral fraud. Vote-buying allegations have been ever present in Albanian elections. What serves to differentiate this particular electoral process is the alleged massive scale of electoral fraud, which was denounced by both the opposition parties and international observers. Proving such allegations is extremely difficult from a legal perspective however, except in circumstances when people are literally caught-in-the-act, which again necessitates a willing and resourceful police-force.
Besides the SDP’s success, there other instances where unknown individuals managed to gather an extraordinary amount of votes in these elections. Most remarkable is perhaps the case of Orlando Rakipi, who ran for the socialist party. The son of an ex-member of parliament who was barred from holding public office in light of his failure to report his criminal dealings during the decriminalization process, Orlando managed to gather more than 16,000 votes in Tirane, thus gaining more votes than the Prime-Minister himself or the leader of the opposition did. Furthermore, Mr. Rakipi outperformed all the cabinet ministers that ran in the same district. Mr. Majko, a socialist who served two terms as Prime Minister was also outperformed by young Orlando, and did not manage to get a seat in parliament. The son in law of the ex-member of parliament, Aqif Rakipi, also managed to get elected as part of the socialist ticket in the district of Elbasan, where he managed to gather the highest amount of votes.
Albania has a troubled history with rigged soccer matches. F.C Skanderbeg, the champions of the national league as well as other teams have been sanctioned by international courts due to the fact that they had rigged international matches in exchange for cash. As of today, none of the members of political teams which compete against one another for control of parliament has been penalized for committing electoral fraud. Previous cases of potential vote-buying efforts such as the infamous “case-file 184”, containing audio-recordings of members of the public administration have still not been reviewed, despite the fact that the proceedings have commenced in 2017. The international community has repeatedly called upon the new judicial authorities to thoroughly investigate the vote buying allegations concerning the 2021 Parliamentary Elections.
A lame-duck president and the future of checks and balances
The Central Electoral Commission is currently reviewing the submissions of the opposition parties, in which they denounce what they refer to as “an electoral massacre” perpetuated through massive vote-buying efforts. The Democratic Party is seeking a repeat of the elections in 9 out of 12 electoral districts. This legal battle is set to continue for a considerable amount of time, and it is highly unlikely that the opposition parties will achieve their aim of upturning the election results. The International community was quick to acknowledge the socialists’ win and offer their congratulations to the Prime-Minister. It seems reasonable to assume that in their view, these highly disputed elections are a done deal.
Despite the ongoing legal proceedings regarding the electoral process, the Democratic Party seems intent on entering parliament, presumably also because it drew the necessary lessons out of its catastrophic decision to abandon Parliament in 2019. And although an upturn of the elections results is quite unlikely, it stands to reason that the Democratic Party will continue to fight this fight within parliament. This will inevitably further political conflict between the two parties.
The Prime-Minister seems to be open to the idea of collaborating with the Democrats and has already “waived the white flag” to coin it in his terms, asking them to list the issues which they wish to discuss. In fact this sounds quite cynical. In June 2020, three great powers ( the U.S, the U.K and the EU) brokered a deal between the opposition and the government in regard to the electoral code. Three months later Mr. Rama reputed the deal and the assurances that the three great powers had given to the Democrats by changing the electoral rules in his favor with the help of a rubber-stamp parliament. It is estimated that the Socialist Party won up to 7 seats in Parliament due to this change alone. This change alone gave the socialists an almost unbeatable lead in the 2021 Parliamentary Elections.
Even if one were to be convinced of the fact that the Prime-Minister is promising cooperation in good faith, it would seem rather undemocratic if political issues in this country was resolved through the Prime-Minister sending the opposition a request to list their issues, which would then be magically resolved. If this were to happen, the opposition would have effectively turned into a governmental department in a country where, during 70 of its 100 years of existence, members of opposition parties have either been murdered or outlawed.
An important questions that begs to be answered is whether after these elections it will be possible to restore a system of checks and balances. Parliament has initiated the procedures for the dismissal of the President. If such efforts prove to be successful, they will inevitably lead to the neutralization of a center of power which provides checks and balances to the otherwise unfettered powered of the executive. And even if Mr. Meta remains in power until the constitutional court are able to review the legality of the decision to dismiss the president, his position and de-facto ability to exercise his role, especially in the manner in which he recently has seen fit, will be severely weakened. It is also difficult or perhaps naive to assume that a presidential candidate chosen by the Socialist Party will exercise his duties in a manner that is impartial. If Mr. Rama controls the Parliament, the Government, the Presidency and given that he enjoys the “right influence” over the new justice system, it is not hard to see a clear power-consolidation trend that is turning Albania into a one-party-state.
Instead of conclusions
Two days before voting day, the Government signed a new contract for the construction of an airport in the south, whereas the Prime-Minister personally took park in the inauguration of a new airport in the north, where he also promised that by the end of his third mandate 4 international airports will be operating in Albania. Lutfi Dervishi, the journalist mentioned above who is also known for his excellent sense of humor commented the following: “Given that 400,000 Albanians left at a time where we had only one airport, securing a fourth mandate will be certainly easy, if the Prime-Minister keeps his promise to build other three”