Rallies in three cities mark the end of the Albanian electoral campaign. The governing Democrats based their campaign on achievements in the last eight years, while the opposition Socialists vow to fight corruption and return to a progressive tax system
After 30 days of campaigning, the two main political forces competing in Albania’s June 23 election — the ruling Democratic Party of Prime Minister Sali Berisha and the opposition Socialist Party of former Tirana Mayor Edi Rama — are scheduled to hold their final rallies on Friday evening, ahead of Sunday’s polls, which are considered a key test for Albania’s democracy and EU integration.
The ruling Democrats are expected to hold a mass rally and concert at Mother Teresa Square in Tirana. Conservative Prime Minister Sali Berisha, 68, who leads the center-right Alliance for Employment, Welfare and Integration Coalition is seeking a third consecutive mandate, promising to create 250,000 jobs in the next four years and continue applying a flat 10 percent tax on personal income and corporate taxes.
The opposition Socialist Party held its final rally in Tirana on Thursday evening, and is expected to finish its nationwide campaign Friday with two simultaneous rallies in Vlora and Shkodra, the largest cities in the southern and northern parts of the country.
Opposition leader Edi Rama, 48, will lead the rally in the southern coastal city of Vlora, were he is a candidate MP. He heads the left-wing Alliance for European Albania Coalition. The SP has promised to create 300,000 jobs, apply progressive taxation and lift VAT on a several basic products.
Saturday is set aside as a day of reflection and no campaigning is allowed. Some 3.3 million Albanians are eligible to vote on Sunday, in a crucial vote which is being closely monitored by European Union, the United States and the OSCE/ODIHR. Some 140 MPs will be elected under a regional proportional system with closed candidate lists.
The campaign environment has been generally calm and peaceful, said the OSCE/ODIHR in its interim report on June 7.
The incomplete functioning of the Central Election Commission, which since April 2013 has been operating with only four-majority proposed members has been the key concern by international partners during the electoral campaign. Despite continuous appeals, parties failed to reach consensus to fill in vacancies in the seven-member CEC.
The Electoral College, a judicial body comprising eight Appeals Court judges, has now assumed CEC’s responsibility because of its inability to adopt decisions requiring a qualified majority of five votes. Lack of consensus to fill in the CEC vacancies means the Electoral College will also deal with the certification of election results, although there have questions on the legality of such certification.
Economic concerns dominated campaign
The state of the economy has been a driving factor in Albania’s electoral campaign, with parties making many pledges to voters.
The incumbent Democrats pledge to push the country forward with more investments in infrastructure, agriculture, industry and the like.
Prime Minister Berisha is also betting on the TAP gas pipeline project which could bring in 2 billion dollars of investment and tens of thousands of jobs. A final decision on TAP, which has a major rival, will be made after the election.
The Democrats have based their campaign on their achievements in the last eight years they have been in power. They say there are now more than 10,000 kilometers of new or rehabilitated roads countrywide. They mention millions of dollars supporting farmers. They say they have built and reconstructed thousands of schools, hospitals and health centers.
“I invite you on to vote on the June 23 elections to join us for a greater support for agriculture, new infrastructure, and for better wages and pensions,” Berisha said at a campaign stop.
The Democrats say the key to their success has been the implementation of a flat tax.
“We have imposed the flat tax, which is the most honest tax this country has ever seen. With this tax, everyone pays only 10 percent of what is earned,” Berisha said at a recent rally.
Berisha says they are going to raise the minimum salaries to at least 350 dollars and the average to 700 dollars.
The promises aim to boost support for Berisha’s center-right coalition, which is trailing the opposition Socialists in the polls by several percentage points.
Socialists vow to fight corruption, implement reforms
The opposition, on the other hand, says it wants to fight corruption. Socialists, led by Rama, have targeted their attacks toward Berisha and his close family members, telling Albanians they have improperly profited from politics and power, becoming multi-millionaires. They also target several other ministers to show how corruption in politics has become pervasive.
The Socialists’ main policy proposal is the return to a progressive tax for personal income. They say that 95 percent of the population will profit from the move.
“Whoever lives on a salary should not think party affiliation, but should vote the Socialist Party to remove the flat tax,” Rama said at a recent rally. “Those who make less will pay less in taxes.”
And the pledges continue with turning the country’s economy into production, instead of one only offering services and importing most good.
The Socialists say the health system will be improved and be free and open to all. They say that the education system will be reformed to reach international standards and not simply serve as a diploma mill.
The Socialists also claim that within 300 days they will make the country safer, noting that there has been an increase in crime in the past two years. They accuse the government of not doing enough to fight crime and say some officials have criminal ties.
“Crime is out of control today,” Rama said at a recent campaign stop. “By voting for us on June 23, common Albanians will make the state police and will turn it into their service, protecting their lives and property.”
Independent analysts note that despite a recent rise in crime, Albania remains one of the safest countries in Europe, with crime statistics for cities like Tirana far lower than those of major EU hubs.
Legalization of the properties, including those built illegally, has been another key element used from both political groupings during the electoral campaign.
Parties court Albanians abroad
The two political groupings have also dedicated much of their attention to the immigrants; there are more than a million Albanian voters in nearby Italy and neighboring Greece. These migrant voters have been heavily courted by the parties. There were reports that the governing Democrats were offering free plane tickets to thousands of voters, while the opposition Socialists are making busing people in from Greece.
There are still fears that there may be manipulations in the voting system, starting with the voters’ list. There are some 300,000 registered voters who have no fixed address and that means that, like previous times, some of them may be used to cast ballots in more than one polling station.
Smaller parties might become kingmakers
The role of smaller political parties like that of the Socialist Movement for Integration on the left and the New Democratic Spirit Party on the right might become very important, analysts note. According to polls, the two large political parties might not be able to form a coalition on their own.
“We are a political force that want decision-making to take place in parliament, to have a real state that represents its citizens and not simply the wills of party leaders,” former Albanian President and NDS leader Bamir Topi said at a recent campaign stop taking aim at Berisha and Rama.
Even if the Socialists or Democrats manage to get the government-forming 71 seats in the 140-seat parliament, they still need the smaller groupings and small coalition partners to get enough votes in parliament to pass many reforms and laws needed especially for the country’s reforms and requests in the integration process into the EU.
Economic woes worry voters
Albania’s economy has slowed down to a crawl in recent months. Though not technically in recession, with virtually no growth the results are the same.
Both the World Bank and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development showed this week that the country will have a forecast of 1.8 or 1.6 percent growth this year. Experts say that when that figure is below 2 percent that practically means recession for the country’s tiny economy which needs to return to its previous 6 percent growth rate it saw years ago to effect change.
The crisis in Greece and Italy where most of the country’s migrant workers reside has had its negative impact in Albania. The figures of the remittances immigrants bring have diminished so much.
These two countries are also Albania’s main trading partners.
In addition, the government has surpassed the 60 percent threshold of the budget deficit. Its last mentioned figures said it was 62.8 but other sources speak of 66 percent, which if true, would be the highest in the region.
Meanwhile the government again increased public salaries and pensions by as much as 6 percent. It also reduced taxation in many products and areas, which can lead to a larger deficit.
The opposition claims the government has spent the entire annual budget in the first five months of the year and most of them for expenses related to the electoral campaign.