Elections 2017: Seven things to keep in mind as Albanians head to the polls

The parliamentary elections that will be held this Sunday, June 25, 2017, are unique in Albania’s recent history. They are the most unpredictable and the calmest since the fall of communism. They are also a paradox as elections go. And they are not necessarily the most democratic elections that have ever been held.

These unprecedented circumstances come because all of the three main parties looking to claim victory in the elections are already in the government managing the elections – the Socialist Party of Prime Minister Edi Rama, the Democratic Party led by Lulzim Basha and the Socialist Movement for Integration now under the leadership of Petrit Vasili after its founding chairman, Ilir Meta, officially resigned to take the post of President of the Republic in July.

The Socialist Party and the Socialist Movement for Integration continue their coalition in the government, while on the campaign trail they are in a tough all-out race. In an unprecedented case, having lost the elections of 2013, the main opposition Democratic Party has gained representation in the government shortly before the elections.

Following the agreement between Prime Minister Rama and the opposition leader, Basha, the Socialists handed over some of the most important cabinet portfolios – those of justice, healthcare, education, social affairs as well as the Ministry of Interior, Ministry of Finance and the post of Deputy Prime Minister. All of these are now managed by caretaker technocrats proposed by the opposition.

Unlike the 2013 elections, political parties are running alone, not in coalitions, a move that can bring serious implications for the Socialist Movement for Integration and smaller parties in the race, including newcomers looking to gain on the protest vote – Libra led by Ben Blushi on the left and Sfida led by Gjergj Bojaxhi on the right.

However, these particulars involved and lack of formal coalitions are not the only novelty in the June 25 elections.

First, the campaign has been the calmest ever, and the voting day is likely to be the same way. However, getting here was not easy. Just a little over a month before the elections the country was headed toward a major crisis that had a major destabilization potential. For more than three months, the main opposition Democratic Party had held a nonstop public protest in front of the Prime Minister’s Office, demanding the government’s resignation and the creation of a caretaker government staffed by technocrats. The opposition accused the government of planing to use crime money from cannabis cultivation and trafficking to buy the elections. The opposition transformed its protest into a forum where citizens were invited to vent their issues with the Socialist-led government.

Regrettably, the political elite in Albania once again demonstrated the lack of will and capacity to resolve disputes domestically, repeating the same political culture of addiction to international mediation. To solve the political crisis in Albania, the European Union and the United States committed to mediate.

The country was very close to the brink of having an election without the opposition’s participation, a never-before-seen negative move. The government and the opposition were far from finding a solution, when the European Union, through an open letter to the Albanian people, seemed to give the green light to the government to hold the election without the opposition’s participation, a decision that did not seem to have the support of the United States, the other international mediator.

Holding elections without the opposition’s participation would have resulted in a parliament dominated by the ruling Socialist Party and its, until recently, ally, the Socialist Movement for Integration – as well as a few satellite parties and powerless anti-system newcomers as opposition. It would not have been viable as a long-term parliament and the Socialist Party leader and Prime Minister Rama admitted it.

Third, the SP and DP, the two parties that have dominated the political scene in Albania during the last quarter of the century, after the establishment of pluralism in 1990, entered into these elections after an agreement between their two leaders, Prime Minister Edi Rama and Democratic Party Chairman Lulzim Basha. Not all the details of this agreement have been made public.

The agreement came when all of those involved in the negotiations had lost hope — including the international mediators involved in the Albanian political crisis. However, the prime minister and the opposition chief met alone and came up with a political solution to give key ministries to technocrats proposed by the opposition. The main tasks of these caretaker ministers was to make sure the state resources were not used to favor the parties in power since 2013.

At first glance the agreement seems like a grand coalition, but local experts note that it only seems that way. It remains to be seen what will happen after the elections – whether SP and DP will continue to split power after the elections if neither is able to secure a ruling majority on its own – in other words getting 71 seats in a parliament made up of 140 lawmakers.

Fourthly, the SMI is entering these elections outside a leftist coalition and will have the opportunity to test its power in an electoral system that does not favor third and small parties, but also in an environment that is hostile to SMI after the end of the ruling coalition with the SP.

SP, and especially Prime Minister Rama, tried hard to keep the same coalition as four years ago, even by presenting this coalition as strategic and important to the European country’s future. However, there have been ongoing tensions between the two ruling parties, and the coalition has often been on the brink of breakup.

After the deal between the two largest parties, SP and DP, the SMI finds itself alone and being blamed for all the ills of the government in which it was a junior partner. It faces charges of creating a state administration that is based on the basis of clientele and nepotism to maximize voter acquisition for the party through giving away jobs, licenses and favors.

The SP and SMI conflict now involves all the top leaders, including Prime Minister Rama and Speaker of Parliament Ilir Meta, who is also the president-elect and is expected to become head of state on July 24.

Fifth, the main opposition Democratic Party and its small satellite parties, which are running candidates inside the list of the DP, are focused primarily on the economic issues, giving proposal on revitalizing the economy and lower unemployment.

On the other hand, the Socialist Party is primarily concerned on “building the state” a rule-of-law platform that urges the voters to have Prime Minister Rama rule alone to be free to implement his program.

Sixth, the opposition Democratic Party enters into this race for the first time without its historic leader, Sali Berisha, who resigned after losing the 2013 general elections. DP is being led by a new leader, Lulzim Basha, who has held several key posts since 2005, including as Minister of Interior and Minister of Foreign Affairs. He then served as Mayor of Tirana for one term. Although it is clear that Berisha continues to be active in the party he led for more than two decades, he is not leading the campaign and as such the results will be a strong test for the new leader. A loss of the election by the opposition would undermine the positions of the new leader, Basha, who was chosen and entrusted with the leadership mostly thanks to Berisha’s support.

Seventh, the country is entering the elections after the incumbent parliament approved a major reform of the justice system and how these elections will be held, including the outcome, will determine the implementation of the reform. How the justice reform is implemented and how governance goes after the elections will also set the stage on whether there will be progress in Albania’s EU membership bid and the country’s stability as a whole.

 

Posted in Elections 2017, Featured

Përse politika e jashtme po mungon nga fushata zgjedhore në Shqipëri

Kur flitet për marrëdhëniet me fqinjët, Tirana ka pasur një qasje amatore ndaj politikës së jashtme, teksa diplomacia e saj shfaq arrogancë dhe shpesh padituri në punët e jashtme – të ndërthurura këto me një qasje populiste, e cila ka çuar në marrëdhënie të vazhdueshme konfliktuale me fqinjët.

 Është e kuptueshme që, në një vend të vogël si Shqipëria, politikës së jashtme të mos i kushtohet shumë vëmendje gjatë fushatës zgjedhore. Kjo është më se e vërtetë për një vend të vogël që është edhe i varfër, që ka një shkallë mjaft të lartë papunësie dhe një sistem shtetëror, që është aq i dobët sa nuk mund t’u garantojë dot qytetarëve të vet shërbime bazë cilësore si infrastruktura, kujdesi shëndetësor, arsimi dhe drejtësia. Këto kanë përparësi, ndaj edhe politika e jashtme mbetet prapa listës.

Por edhe konteksti politik ka ndryshuar. Në vitet e para të tranzicionit shqiptar, politika e jashtme shihej si një vendim strategjik për rindërtimin e shtetit, me fokus te ekonomia dhe te krijimi i lidhjeve me Perëndimin. Shqipëria duhej të linte pas izolimin e saj të detyruar nga një sistem, i cili kishte ngritur pengesa surreale në marrëdhëniet me botën. Tani që vendi ka marrëdhënie të qëndrueshme me Perëndimin, sfida kryesore është krijimi i një ekonomie funksionuese dhe krijimi i një shoqërie demokratike. Si rregull kryesor, një politikë e jashtme e suksesshme, e qëndrueshme, i jep rezultatet e saj pozitive vetëm kur politikat e brendshme janë të suksesshme.

Vetëm një muaj përpara zgjedhjeve në Shqipëri vijonte tradita e vjetër njëzet e pesë vjeçare e konfliktit dhe e ndarjes. Klasa politike e Shqipërisë vazhdon të tregojë kompleksin e saj të varësisë dhe inferioritetit të madh ndaj bashkësisë ndërkombëtare. Atëherë, në këto rrethana, ç’lloj politike të jashtme mund të ketë?

Faktorët, që u përmendën më sipër, nuk i bëjnë çështjet e politikës së jashtme tërheqëse për partitë politike në fushatën zgjedhore. Ndaj edhe programet e strukturuara të politikës së jashtme nuk shihen askund në debatet zgjedhore. Në vend të tyre ka premtime – të gjitha për të pasur më shumë vende pune dhe më shumë të ardhura – të cilat, sipas ekspertëve, nuk janë reale. Edhe pse politika e jashtme mungon nëpër debate e sidomos në trajtimin e çështjeve rajonale, ajo shfaqet në programet zyrtare të partive politike në Shqipëri.

Situata aktuale bie ndesh me mënyrën se si qeveria ka vepruar gjatë katër viteve të kaluara, duke u sjelle si një gjigant në punët ndërkombëtare dhe ka qenë aktive për çështje të tilla si e ardhmja e marrëdhënieve trans-atlantike, në krizën e Azisë Jugore, programin bërthamor të Koresë së Veriut – dhe në çështje të tilla si marrëdhëniet midis Rusisë, SHBA-së dhe BE-së. Por duke hedhur vështrimin tek fushata zgjedhore, partitë shqiptare sigurisht që qëndrojnë larg nga këto çështje të mëdha globale.

Kjo sigurisht që është një gjë e mirë : Një vend i vogël me tre-katër milionë banorë, gjysma e të cilëve dëshirojnë të emigrojnë dhe një shtet i dobët që gjithmonë ka nevojë për ndërhyrjen ndërkombëtare në qeverisjen dhe politikat e brendshme nuk mund të merret me çështje botërore.

Por partitë që shpresojnë të qeverisin vendin në katër vitet e ardhshme duhet të fokusohen vërtet në disa çështje të caktuara të politikës së jashtme, që lidhen me interesat bazë të Shqipërisë, me rendin e saj demokratik, sigurinë rajonale dhe stabilitetin. Këto janë çështje që ndikojnë mbi votuesit shqiptarë dhe mbi Shqipërinë. Për shembull, le t’u hedhim një vështrim marrëdhënieve të Shqipërisë me Greqinë. Gjatë katër viteve të fundit, këto marrëdhënie, me këtë fqinj shumë të rëndësishëm për Shqipërinë, kanë mbetur në vend. Qëndrimi populist iu ka shkaktuar më shumë dëm këtyre marrëdhënieve dhe e ka ndalur përmirësimin e tyre.

Kur flitet për marrëdhëniet me Greqinë, Tirana ka mbajtur një qëndrim prej amatori në politikën e jashtme, teksa diplomacia e saj ka shfaqur arrogancën dhe shpesh herë paditurinë në punët e jashtme – të ndërthurura këto me një qasje populiste, e cila ka çuar në marrëdhënie të vazhdueshme konfliktuale.

Gjatë katër viteve të fundit, udhëheqësit iu kanë rënë daulleve edhe për marrëdhëniet me Kosovën, megjithëse rezultatet konkrete duken në nivelin e ulët të marrëdhënieve ekonomike midis të dy vendeve. Qëndrimi populist ka dëmtuar përsëri zhvillimin e duhur të marrëdhënieve midis këtyre dy vendeve sovrane.

Kjo është përkeqësuar edhe nga qëndrimi paternalist i Tiranës ndaj Prishtinës, një veprim që duket se ka pasur mjaft kundërvënie nga qeveria e Kosovës dhe elita e saj politike.

Edhe marrëdhëniet me Maqedoninë përfunduan gati në ngrirje, përsëri për shkak të qasjes populiste dhe paternaliste të shefave të politikës së jashtme në Tiranë, përfshi edhe “platformën shqiptare,” të gatuar në Tiranë dhe nën drejtimin e qeverisë së Tiranës gje që e minoi marrëveshjen e arritur midis partive politike shqiptare në Maqedoni kur kjo marrëveshje u sulmua si e fabrikuar jashtë vendit dhe nuk ishte një marrëveshje e natyrshme në të mirën e bashkësisë së atjeshme shqiptare dhe të Maqedonisë në tërësi. Për më tepër, ajo marrëveshje nuk thoshte ndonjë gjë më shumë se sa çështjet që prej kohësh janë përcaktuar në Marrëveshjen e Ohrit.

Marrëdhëniet me Serbinë, pavarësisht nga shtimi i dialogut midis dy kryeministrave, nuk arritën dot të viheshin mbi një themel normal, të qëndrueshëm, afatgjatë. Shkëmbimet midis dy vendeve janë të pakta, sidomos kur vjen puna për ekonominë.

Për më tepër, pretendimi i Shqipërisë për të udhëhequr pajtimin midis shqiptarëve dhe serbëve në Ballkan është jo realist, i pamundshëm dhe me të drejtë është refuzuar nga udhëheqësit e Kosovës.

Qeveria e Kosovës e ka bërë të qartë se pajtimi i shqiptarëve dhe serbëve kalon nga Prishtina dhe jo nga Tirana.

Po kështu Prishtina ka refuzuar një qasje paternaliste të Tiranës kur është fjala për marrëdhëniet e Kosovës me Serbinë. Udheheqësit më të lartë politikë në Kosovë e kanë bërë të qartë se Shqipëria nuk mund të diskutojë me Serbinë, në emër të Kosovës, çështje që lidhen me Kosovën. Serbia dhe Kosova mund t’i diskutojnë problemet dypalëshe si dy shtete sovrane.

Të gjitha këto çështje mund dhe duhet të kishin qenë pjesë e fushatës, por nga mungesa e një qëndrimi koherent dhe fitimprurës, aty vazhdojnë akoma të bien daullet e populizmit.

PDIU është i vetmi element nacionalist në këtë fushatë, pas largimit nga gara të Aleancës Kuq e Zi. PDIU po flet për bashkimin e të gjitha trojeve shqiptare, duke iu shitur votuesve një gënjeshtër me shpresën e marrjes së votave. Kjo parti, që përfaqëson kryesisht bashkësinë çame, është e vetmja deri tani që është fokusuar te çështja kombëtare, duke folur për të si 100 vjet më parë. Megjithëse ka shumë retorikë, mungesa e një qëndrimi serioz mbi politikën e jashtme bën që premtimet të mos mbahen. Madje edhe çështja çame trajtohet më shumë si një mit, se sa për të gjetur një zgjidhje reale për atë bashkësi.

Kurse kapaku i artë është rinovimi i Sheshit Skënderbej në Tiranë, i cili u hap  këtë fundjavë pas një vlere rindërtimi me miliona euro. Ai paska gurë nga të gjitha trevat ku banojnë shqiptarët në rajon, madje edhe nga Lugina e Preshevës, në Serbinë Jugore, si edhe nga Filati, në Greqinë Veriore, me idenë se Tirana qenka kryeqyteti i kombit shqiptar. Kjo nuk është veçse populizëm. Kryeqyteti i Preshevës dihet që është Beogradi, i Filatit dihet që është Athina, e cila dihet që është kryeqytet i aleatit të Shqipërisë në NATO, Greqisë. Po Tirana nuk është as kryeqytet i Kosovës, se dihet që ajo ka kryeqytet Prishtinën.

Posted in Kryesore, Zgjedhje 2017

Why foreign policy is missing from Albania’s electoral campaign

 

It is understandable that in a small country like Albania foreign policy is not going to get much attention on the campaign trail. That’s even more the case in a small country that is poor, has frighteningly high unemployment and has a state system that is so weak it cannot guarantee its citizens the basics of quality in services like infrastructure, healthcare, education and justice. These take priority, and so foreign policy has to take a back seat.

The political context has changed too. In the early days of Albania’s transition, foreign policy was seen as a strategic choice in state formation to focus the economy on creating ties with the West. Albania had to leave behind its isolation forced from a system that had placed surreal barriers on relations with the world.

Now that country has solid relations with the West, the major challenge is the creation of a proper functioning economy and the creation of a fully democratic society. A successful foreign policy that is stable gives its positive results only when internal policies are also successful, as a rule of thumb.

Less than a month ahead of the election, the 25-year-old tradition of conflict and division continues. Albania’s political class also continues to show it is dependent on and has a frightening inferiority complex toward the international community. So what kind of foreign policy can there be under these circumstances?

The above mentioned factors make foreign policy issues unattractive for political parties on the campaign trail. Structured foreign policy programs are nowhere to be seen in electoral discussions. Instead there are promises – all tied to getting more jobs and more perks – and mostly unrealistic, according to experts.

Even though there is an absence in discussions, foreign policy, especially in dealing with regional issues, does make an appearance in the official programs of political parties in Albania.

The current situation comes as a contrast at how the government has acted in the past four years, launching Albania as a global giant that can play on issues like the future of trans-Atlantic relations, the crisis in South Asia, North Korea’s nuclear program – and issues like relations between Russia, the US and the EU. Back to reality in the electoral campaign, Albanian parties are of course staying away from these grander global issues.

That might be a good thing, but parties that are hoping to rule the country for the next four years should indeed focus on certain foreign policy issues which relate to the basic interests of Albania, its democratic rule, regional security and stability. These are issues that do affect Albanian voters and Albania.

For example, let’s look at Albania’s relations with Greece. There has been for the past four years a status quo of relations with this very important country for Albania. A populist approach has done much harm to these relations and stopped their improvement.

When it comes to relations with Greece, Tirana has had an amateur approach to foreign policy, with its diplomacy showing arrogance and often ignorance of proper foreign affairs — intertwined with a populist approach that has resulted in an ongoing conflictual relations.

In the past four years, leaders have been beating their drums on relations with Kosovo too, however, the real result is seen in the low level of economic relations between the two countries. The populist approach has again hurt the proper development of relations as two sovereign countries.

This is made worse by a paternalistic approach by Tirana on Prishtina, something that saw a lot of resistance by the Kosovo government and its political elite.

Relations with Macedonia too ended up nearly frozen, again due to to a populist and paternalistic approach by Tirana’s foreign policy chiefs, including the famous cooking up of “the Albanian platform” in Tirana, giving the agreement among ethnic Albanian political parties the hue that it was done from the outside rather than being an organic deal for the betterment of that community and Macedonia as whole. Moreover, the agreement said nothing more than is already spelled out in the Ohrid Agreement.

Relations with Serbia, despite growing dialogue between the two prime ministers, failed to be channeled into a normal, stable and long-term foundation. Exchanges between the two countries remain weak, especially when it comes to the economy.

Moreover, Albania’s approach to reconciliation between Albanian and Serbs in the region lacks proper foundation and it cannot be done because it is not accepted from Kosovo, the government of which made it clear that Albania cannot discuss issues relating to Kosovo with Serbia on behalf of Kosovo. Serbia and Kosovo can discuss bilateral issues as two sovereign states. The government of Kosovo has been clear that reconciliation of Albanians and Serbs goes through Prishtina, not Tirana.

All these issues could and should have been part of the campaign, but in the absence of a coherent and beneficial approach, the drums of populism continue to beat.

The PDIU party is the sole nationalist element in the campaign after the Red and Black alliance folded out of the race. PDIU is speaking about uniting all Albanian lands, selling a lie to voters with the hope of getting more votes. This party, which represents primarily the Cham community, is the only still focusing on the national issue, speaking about it as if 100 years have not gone by. While the rhetoric is there, there is an absence of a serious foreign policy approach about making its promises happen. Even the Cham issue is spoken as a myth, rather than finding a real solution for the community.

And the cherry on the cake is Tirana’s renovated Skanderbeg square, which opens this weekend following a multimillion-euro reconstruction. It includes stones from all areas of the region where ethnic Albanians live, including the Presevo Valley in southern Serbia and Filat in northern Greece, under the idea that Tirana is the capital of the Albanian nation. This is populism at its best. Presevo’s capital is Belgrade. Filat’s is Athens – also the capital of Albania’ NATO ally, Greece. And Tirana is not the capital of Kosovo, it’s Prishtina

Posted in Elections 2017, Featured

Three largest parties try to lure voters with pledges of lower taxes, new jobs

With the electoral campaign already underway after the overcome of a 3-month political deadlock, all three major parties, including the Socialist Party and the Socialist Movement for Integration which led the country for the past four years are offering lower taxes for the upcoming June 25 general elections. The move of the two left parties has been apparently triggered by a sharp cut in taxes that the main opposition center right Democratic Party is offering.

Unlike previous elections, no pre-electoral coalitions have been formed ahead of the elections, and all major three parties, the ruling Socialist Party, the opposition Democratic Party and the Socialist Movement for Integration, the third largest Party which has emerged as a kingmaker since 2009, will be running alone, making the winning coalition a bid difficult to predict, at a time when a grand coalition between the two biggest parties is also possible following the recent last minute deal between the two main political forces over a caretaker government to handle elections and a series of major reforms.

The main ruling Socialist Party of Prime Minister Edi Rama which led the country for the past four years when Albania’s tax burden became one of the region’s highest, after keeping the tax policy unchanged for 2017 has recently come up with some changes that would slightly ease the tax burden and trigger employment. In its electoral program, the ruling Socialists seeking a second consecutive term, promise to create some 220,000 jobs for the next four years, admitting that they missed their 300,000 new jobs target for the past four years when they claim to have opened up 183,000 jobs.

Critics believe that the 183,000 jobs the ruling Socialists opened up were mainly a result of a nationwide campaign against informality formalizing jobs that already existed. They also blame Prime Minister Rama for the massive outflow of about 100,000 people, about 3.5 percent of the country’s resident population, leaving Albania in the past three years to seek asylum in EU member countries, mainly Germany.

In its 2017-2021 electoral program, the Socialist Party brings back its 2013 promise of free healthcare although a series of controversial concessions the government has awarded for the next ten years are expected to cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of euros under which the government will either pay the cost of the investment in installments or guarantee the revenue of concessionaires.

“The acceleration of sustainable economic growth, the implementation of the justice reform, the further consolidation of state institutions, the strengthening of rule of law, increased investments, the application of incentives in priority sectors as well as interventions to ensure a more qualitative labour market supply will be the key factors enabling the creation of some 220,000 jobs,” says the Socialist Party.

The Socialists are also promising incentives for the IT sector with a differentiated 5 percent corporate income tax, down from a current 15 percent and a lower tax burden for high income earners with monthly wages of more than 130,000 lek (€958) whose progressive tax rate will drop to 18 percent down from a current 23 percent, which is estimated to have triggered informality by discouraging the declaration of real income with tax authorities.

Prime Minister Edi Rama says the Socialist Party needs to win the minimum 71 out of the 140-seat MPs alone in order to steer reforms, especially the much-rumored vetting of judges and prosecutors as part of a justice reform.

“The same as we fought and won the vetting, we will fight and win to make the economy and employment grow like never before. We achieved a lot, but much more remains to be done. But there is still much to lose if the Socialist Party doesn’t steer reforms on its own without others on its back,” Prime Minister Rama has been writing on these first days of campaigning.

The Socialist Party is also promising a lower dividend tax.

“We will continue applying the current corporate income tax, but will lower the dividend tax to 6 percent,” said former Socialist Party Finance Minister Arben Ahmetaj. Last May, Ahmetaj was one of the incumbent ministers replaced with six caretaker ministers proposed by the opposition Democratic Party to pave the way for the June 25 elections after the opposition had threatened to boycott elections unless a caretaker government was formed to guarantee free and fair elections.

The government also recently cut the value added tax applied on accommodation units to 6 percent, down from a previous 20 percent, making the country’s tourism more competitive in terms of the tax burden compared to regional countries already applying differentiated tax rates.

The ruling Socialists undertook several reforms in the energy and pension systems, cut the number of local government units under an administrative and territorial reform and fought informality under a rather aggressive nationwide campaign accompanied by a sharp increase in penalties later turned down by the country’s Constitutional Court as “disproportionate” to income and offences committed.

Public finances also recovered thanks to an IMF supported program and accumulated unpaid bills to the business community were cleared, but public debt at about 70 percent of the GDP and credit struggling to return to positive growth due to high level of NPLs remain key barriers for the Albanian economy which has been growing by 1 to 3 percent in the past eight years compared to a pre-crisis decade of 6 percent annually. Last year, the Albanian economy recovered to 3.5 percent but that was mainly thanks to some major energy-related investment such as the Trans Adriatic Pipeline.

Experts say the Albanian economy, one of Europe’s poorest, needs to grow by at least 6 percent annually in order to produce welfare for the country’s households.

 

Opposition Democrats

The opposition Democrats who ended their three-month protest following a last-minute foreign-mediated deal leading to a government led by Prime Minister Edi Rama but with some caretaker ministers are focusing their campaign on a so-called New Republic that pledges to return the country to rule of law, uproot massive cannabis cultivation, cancel some controversial concessions in the health sector and a controversial higher education law and offer lower taxes.

The tax policy, a key concern for business representatives after Albania’s tax burden became one of the region’s highest after abandoning its 10 percent flat tax in 2013, is one of the key pillars of the main opposition Democratic Party’s electoral platform which is offering a 9 percent flat tax.

Since 2014, when Albania abandoned its 10 percent flat tax regime, the corporate income tax and the withholding tax on dividends, rents and capital gains have increased by 5 percent to 15 percent, making the tax burden in the country one of the region’s highest.

Democratic Party leader Lulzim Basha says the opposition’s electoral program offers a 9 percent flat tax on personal and corporate income and a reduction in the key value added tax by 5 percent to 15 percent.

“There is no and there can be no strong government without a strong economy. But how did Edi Rama destroy the economy? It was with high taxes and violence and Europe’s highest fuel and electricity prices,” says opposition leader Lulzim Basha.

“The New Republic will represent the 9 percent flat tax, the 15 percent value added tax, a 1.5 percent turnover tax in central and local government taxes on small businesses and no inspections, a zero dividend tax so that 1 billion euro that is currently abused, robbed or lost because of informality and the bankruptcy of businesses each year is injected into the Albanian economy and triggers positive energy, the employment of Albanians and higher wages,” Basha said at the opening of the electoral campaign last weekend.

At 36.5 percent of profit, Albania’s total tax rate is slightly lower only compared to Serbia’s 39.7 percent among EU aspirant Western Balkans countries, according to the latest World Bank’s Doing Business report.

The opposition Democrats says their ambitious and realistic program brings economic recovery, establishes the appropriate business climate and boosts confidence among consumers, citizens and youth.

“We will offer fiscal incentives on priority development sectors, businesses that create jobs with decent salaries in key economy sectors such as tourism, technology and innovation,” Basha has said.

A former foreign, interior and transport minister as well as Tirana Mayor, Basha is a 42-year-old politician who in 2013 succeeded Sali Berisha as Democratic Party leader following his resignation from the party he founded in the early 1990s as the communist regime was collapsing.

The opposition Democratic Party leader has also pledged a review of what he has called “clientelistic and monopoly concession contracts” that the Socialist Party-led government has signed in the past four years, putting a huge burden on taxpayers and an end to “luxury spending on facades, cars, furniture and travel allowances.” The opposition is also offering benefits for households receiving social assistance who will also have a monthly 200 kV of electricity, their water supply bill and children’s textbooks covered through the state budget.

The opposition takes to the upcoming mid-2017 elections after two consecutive heavy defeats in the 2013 general elections and 2015 locals and most recently in the by-elections for the Dibra and Kolonja municipalities.

The center right opposition Democrats, who have ruled the country from 1992 to 1997, soon after the country’s communist regime collapsed and from 2015 to 2013, occupied only about a third of the 140 seat Parliament dominated by the Socialist Party and its junior ally, the Socialist Movement for Integration (SMI) during the past four years.

 

Socialist Movement for Integration

Having emerged as a kingmaker since the 2009 elections, the center left Socialist Movement for Integration (SMI), established in 2004 as a splinter of the then-ruling Socialist Party, has been constantly growing over the past 13 years of its existence. The SMI is heading to the upcoming general elections with a new leader, former health and justice minister Petrit Vasili, after its historical leader, former Prime Minister and Parliament Speaker Ilir Meta was elected as the country’s president in late April and resigned as party head before he takes over as new president next July.

With all parties running outside coalitions for the upcoming elections, the SMI has also unveiled its electoral promises focused on lower taxes and creating new jobs.

“The SMI with its economic and social transformation platform will unleash the full potential of the Albanian economy to create 170,000 new jobs in the next four years in the most vital sectors of the economy such as agriculture, tourism, infrastructure, industry and services, of which 100,000 new and well-paid jobs will be available for young Albanians,” says the SMI program.

The SMI is also offering progressive taxation of 5 to 10 percent for SMEs and big businesses as well as reduced 8 to 10 percent personal income tax, a 10 percent VAT on basic goods and higher support for the tourism, road infrastructure, the IT and the education and healthcare sectors.

“This platform brings back optimism and gives youngsters big reasons to build their future here. With this clear and concrete program, economic growth potential is for a 7 to 10 percent growth rate which will be tangible for every Albanian,” says the new SMI head Petrit Vasili.

Former SMI leader, incoming president Ilir Meta is optimistic the SMI will get at least 34 MPS in the upcoming elections, which is a quarter of the current MP, strengthening its position as a kingmaker in Albanian politics.

“Based on the 2015 local elections results, the SMI gets 34 MPs nationwide. Two years on, it is understandable that growth could be at a maybe unpredictable progression,” Meta has said.

 

Election result, tax uncertainties

Albania’s business climate got a real boost from the overcome of a tense political deadlock that undermined business and consumer confidence for several months, but uncertainties over the result of next June’s general elections until a new government takes over next September are expected to continue holding back new foreign and domestic investment.

The uncertainties are related to the new government that will take over after the June 25 general elections and the tax policies it will apply.

Albania’s FDI hit a record of about 1 billion euros in 2016, mainly because of some major energy-related projects such as the TAP pipeline and two big hydropower plants by Norway’s Statkraft, raising concerns about the progress of FDI in the post-2020 period when these projects are completed.

The ruling Socialists have unveiled an ambitious pre-electoral program of injecting 1 billion euros in key sectors of the economy through public-private partnerships, but experts have warned the project risks creating new arrears and hidden public debt at a time when the country’s economy already faces high debt levels and the economy is slowly recovering.

Public-private partnerships have become a hot topic in Albanian politics after some risky concessions and warnings by international financial institutions that some 55 public-private partnerships the Albanian governments have signed during the past decade, have created commitments with a present value of about 7 percent of the GDP or €700 million in which the government will either pay the cost of the investment in installments or guarantee the revenue of concessionaires.

Posted in Elections 2017, Featured

In Depth: Albanians vote to elect local leaders in test elections for governance and new territorial division

Albania's new territorial division as 61 municipalities. (Photo: Instat Gis)

Voters across Albania are heading to the polling stations today to elect their local government leaders – 61 new mayors through a direct vote and 1,610 members of the local municipal councils though a closed-list party vote.

Voting started at 7 a.m. and will end at 7 p.m. About 3.3 million Albanians are eligible to vote, but less than half that number is expected to cast their ballots based on previous voting patterns. A third of the country’s population has emigrated abroad in the previous 25 years and can cast votes only if they return to their hometowns.

The June 21 elections are being primarily contested between the two coalitions led by Socialist Prime Minister Edi Rama and outgoing Tirana Mayor Lulzim Basha of the main opposition Democratic Party. There are also a handful of independent candidates and parties running outside the coalitions.

The elections are seen as a test for Rama and Basha, who have ran national campaigns in support of their local candidates. The the vote will offer the first real measure of voter support after 18 months of power for the Socialists, which won the 2013 general elections by a comfortable margin.

Albania is a highly-centralized state and local governments have limited powers, which include but are not limited to urban planning and issuing construction permits as well as operating water supply systems and trash collection.

The election comes after weeks of campaigning that has been less aggressive than previous elections, but which has been accompanied by some harsh rhetoric and accusations of improper conduct.

The municipalities with the largest population, those in the Tirana-Durres metropolitan area as well as those centered around the cities of Shkodra, Elbasan, Vlora and Korça have drawn the most attention, but strong races have been held and a few incidents have registered across Albania, from Konispol near the Greek border to Kukes, bordering Kosovo.

- Tirana, Durres, Shkodra – key races -

Due to the fact that about one in three Albanian voters now lives within the municipality of Tirana, the race in the capital has been the most watched. The new mayor of Tirana will now rule a very large area, including many of the city’s suburbs and other towns and villages which once had self-government.

Erion Veliaj, 35, of the governing Socialists is competing with Halim Kosova, 60, of the main opposition Democratic Party for the top job. They are facing challenges from three other candidates, including an independent, Gjergj Bojaxhi, who opinion polls show could make a strong showing.

Veliaj is a former Welfare Minister and well-known former civil society activist with strong ties to the prime minister. Veliaj has promised more jobs and better infrastructure through cooperation with the national government, which is run by his party.

Kosova, one of the country’s best known obstetricians, served shortly as Health Minister but has spent most of his career as a maternity hospital doctor and manager. Kosova has said he will offer better management and lower taxes. His party’s leader, Basha, did not seek reelection in Tirana, saying he wants to focus on the prime minister’s seat in two years time.

Beating the high registration wall required for independent candidates to run without a party by submitting nearly 14,ooo signatures, Bojaxhi is an Albanian American business executive, who has promised a referendum to ban all construction on green spaces in Tirana and improve urban planning.

There are two other smaller party candidates, who are running below 5 percent in opinion polls.

Albania’s second largest municipality, Durres, will see a race between the Democrats’ Grida Duma, 37, a university professor who saw a quick rise in the party thanks to her media-savvy approach to politics, and incumbent Socialist Vangjush Dako, 49, who is seeking his third term as Durres mayor.

Shkodra is unique in that it has two female candidates – the Democrats’ Voltana Ademi, a university professor, and the Socialists’ Keti Bazhdari, a business owner.

- New administrative division -

The elections are more important than in the past because they are the first to be conducted after the administrative reform that drastically cut the number of municipalities in Albania from 384 to 61 by merging smaller rural municipalities with nearby larger urban ones.

The Socialists made the reform a priority after coming to power in the national elections of 2013. They said it was a cost-cutting move that would lead to better governance.

The opposition Democrats have been against the reform and did not take part in its drafting. They have also accused the government of drawing up municipal borders to give an electoral advantage to Socialists.

- Hundreds of observers monitor vote -

An army of local and international observers will be present on voting day, including from the OSCE/ODIHR’s mission and a coalition of local civil society organization.

They will evaluate the elections for their compliance with international obligations and standards for democratic elections.

Tirana, Albania –  June 21, 2005

Posted in Elections 2015, Featured, In-Depth View

Tirana mayoral candidates focus on economic concerns as campaign continues

With the electoral campaign for the June 21 local elections in full gear, mayoral candidates for the municipality of Tirana, home to a third of the country’s population, have focused much of their attention on economic issues like employment and taxes, which are also the top concern for voters, according to surveys.

Six candidates are running for the Tirana mayor, and the several opinion polls show three candidates will likely receive a substantial part of the vote – two from the traditional leftist and center-right coalitions and an independent.

Socialist Party-led coalition’s Erion Veliaj and Democratic Party-led coalition’s Halim Kosova were among the four candidates who participated at a question and answer session set up by the American Chamber of Commerce in Albania. Their sessions were separate and did not involve any debating.

Veliaj promised tax incentives to businesses to increase youth employment currently estimated at around 30 percent.

“We have proved that when businesses are given funding incentives for 12 months of social security contributions … and wages they are interested in increasing employment,” said Veliaj.

He added he intends to develop public-private partnerships on parking spaces and warehouses to store local agricultural products.

Asked about his tax policy, Veliaj said the new municipality, which under the administrative reform extends beyond its current borders and comprises around 1 million people including 13 communes outside the capital, will focus on the proper collection of taxes, describing promises of tax cuts as populist.

Veliaj said he will introduce progressive taxation so that people living outside Tirana pay less as is the case property tax.

Industry, agriculture and tourism are the priorities of Veliaj’s program, he said.

Halim Kosova, who is running to replace opposition Democratic Party leader Lulzim Basha as Tirana Mayor, has employment and economic development as his top priorities.

“I will focus on two key areas; reducing taxes and a more business-friendly environment but also the extension of the guarantee fund and more public investments in infrastructure, education,” said Kosova, whose project also includes resuming the suspended construction of the Tirana boulevard and building a major public transportation hub just outside the capital.

The center-right candidate promised a cut in local government taxes and a tax free policy for new businesses employing more than 50 people in their first four years of operation.

His administration would also support the handicraft sector and characteristic Tirana products that can create 5,000 new jobs in the tourism and agribusiness sector and strengthening the Tirana brand, Kosova said.

Two other candidates Arben Tafaj, a former neighborhood chief, and Sazan Guri, a green activist, also unveiled their platforms.

Gjergj Bojaxhi, an independent candidate who is expected to get a surprise high showing in the election with polls giving him more than 10 percent of the vote, did not participate in the AmCham event conference because of what he described as a “standard format of unveiling the platforms” and not a real debate between the candidates.

He invited the candidates to hold a direct debate instead.

Focused on the challenges and opportunities facing Tirana in the near and distant future, the conference was a chance for the candidates to discuss issues that are important to voters in a dynamic and interesting venue.

“We hope that there will be more such exchanges, more such efforts to get the information out to the voters, more such exchanges of ideas. From the U.S. Embassy’s perspective, it is important that the voters be informed voters and they that have an opportunity to hear directly from the candidates,” said Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in Tirana Henry Jardine.

Posted in Elections 2015, Featured

Tirana mayoral candidates continue campaign

Political parties in Albania have kicked their mayoral electoral campaigns into full gear, making promises of thousands of jobs, tens of expensive projects, including new schools and infrastructure.

The largest mayoral race in terms of number of voters and political importance is Tirana, where Erion Veliaj of the governing Socialists runs against Halim Kosova of the main opposition Democratic Party.

Veliaj, a former Welfare Minister and activist, is ahead in the polls, but he appears less popular with voters than the large coalition he represents, indicating many Socialist voters are unhappy with Prime Minister Rama’s choice of Veliaj as a candidate.

Kosova, a plain-spoken gynecologist and short-term former Health Minister, is second in the polls and is actually more popular with voters than the party he represents, according to the latest poll numbers.

They are also running against three other candidates, including Gjergj Bojaxhi, an Albanian American business executive who is running as an independent is third in the polls at more than 10 percent by attracting educated middle class Albanians angry with the failures of the political establishment.

These elections are a key test of the parties and the would-be mayors, which under the recent administrative reform will have a far larger area to govern. The number of municipalities has been shrank to 61 from 384 by merging many rural municipalities with nearby towns and cities.

Voters will also choose the local municipal councils in the elections. There have been complaints by voters they did not have a say in the selection of the candidates, who were all chosen by the main party leaders with little public discussion.

Posted in Elections 2015, Featured

Elections Chamber created to facilitate monitoring, holding candidates accountable

Several civil society organizations involved in the upcoming electoral process for the mayoral elections, have joined forces to assist each-other with information, tools and volunteers to appropriately monitor the process.

The coalition, to be known as the Electoral Chamber, will observe the electoral process during the campaign, election day and the tabulation of results.

The organizations work with their staff and volunteers to closely follow the counting of votes, which often a part of the process were there is suspected fraud.

One of the coalition’s leaders, Lutfi Dervishi said the new entity will serve as a platform for exchanging information among all the relevant actors.

“Aiming to strengthen domestic actors, the Albanian civil society, the Elections Chamber brings together for the first time in Albania all the organizations that are directly or indirectly engaged at different expertise levels for the monitoring of the elections of June 21,” Dervishi said.

The civil society has a long experience in monitoring the electoral process in Albania. Several volunteer organizations that monitored the elections were created since the beginning of Albanian democracy.

But the newly-established chamber says it wants to include a wider scope than simply monitoring the process. Participating institutions will follow the elections and also the promises candidates make.

Posted in Elections 2015, Featured

Communist-era asbestos affecting hundreds, as ignorance of risks persists

Albania is covered in 90,000 tons of communist-era deadly asbestos – and there is little public awareness of the risks or proper tracking of the resulting deadly diseases, environmentalists say. 

Eternit_2

Asbestos-cement tiles were widely used in Albania before 1990.

As tourists looked for a Riviera-bound bus under Tirana’s scorching August sun, dust rose from the mud pavement of the improvised bus station in a former industrial area of the city from where thousands of people leave each day for southwestern destinations.

The bus sits next to a building where most of the deteriorating communist-era roof is gone. The rest is cracking and deteriorating, with small pieces of the roof having fallen on the floor below. The roof is made of a composite of cement and asbestos fibers, whose prolonged inhalation can cause deadly lung illnesses that take a decade or more to show symptoms.

Because of its deadly nature, asbestos has been banned in the developed world, where high public awareness about its dangers have led to costly cleanup and maintenance operations to make sure it poses no dangers to people.

Like the bus station, Albania, however, is still literally covered in communist-era deadly asbestos – much of it old and deteriorating, which makes it more dangerous. And there is little public awareness of the risks, environmentalists say, noting that the most deadly form of asbestos-related diseases, mesothelioma, is already present at an estimated 120 cases per year in Albania’s 2.8 million residents.

The population at large does not know much about the risks associated with asbestos, says Romeo Hanxhari, an academic who has studied the issue for years. And he adds that’s troubling because “we have determined there are approximately 60 new cases of mesothelioma per year based on hospital diagnostic data, but these are likely to be under-reported and may be twice this estimate.”

Research shows the amount of asbestos used in Albania between 1930-1990 was estimated at approximately 188,000 tons while around 90,000 tons are still in use.

“The most widespread asbestos containing product in Albania is the asbestos-cement containing 10-25 percent asbestos,” says Hanxhari, who adds most of it was made in Albania. “In the ‘60s a factory for asbestos-cement was built and operated 1992. The material was compressed into flat or undulated sheets to build roofs or walls, and was also made into a range of other products such as pipes, drains, guttering conduits, tanks, etc.”

A team of researchers from the Association for New Environmental Policies, a Tirana-based NGO, attempted a couple of years ago to estimate the asbestos disease burden in Albania only to find there was no real monitoring taking place by health authorities. The researchers found out that healthcare officials only asked lung disease patients if they smoked — 98 percent of patients are smokers — but they did not go any further to distinguish the lung cancer causes.

The use of asbestos has been banned in the EU and Albania, but the problem remains with what to do with the tons that are already there, says Petrit Vasili, a medical doctor turned politician and Albania’s former health minister. He authored a book on the topic, “Asbestos: The silent cancerous killer.”

“The methods that need to be used to remove the threat are scientifically clear, so we have to use them and to make sure that we don’t make the problem worse by eliminating asbestos the wrong way,” Vasili said at a conference in 2013.

Any removal of asbestos products needs to be done with great care so the material is not released into the air and breathed in by workers, however, TCJE journalists have found evidence that when industrial sites were torn down at Tirana’s Ish Uzina Enver neighborhood, asbestos sheets were simply treated as other materials to be discarded.

TCJE reporters who interviewed locals in hotspots said there was little awareness on the streets of the deadly nature of the material present in so many Albanian cities and towns.

In addition to the bus station near the Ish Uzina Enver neighborhood of Tirana, where old industrial sites are all covered in asbestos sheets, TCJE.org journalists found old and damaged asbestos sheeting in Tirana’s main vegetable market, Pazari i Ri, in farms around Tirana, and industrial sites around several major cities including Fier, Vlora, Elbasan and Korça.

One of the worst-polluted areas, is the former asbestos factory in Vlora, 110 kilometers south of Tirana. Although the manufacturing operations ceased in 1992, the site still contains asbestos-cement debris.

Some of the asbestos products have also been used to cover homes elsewhere. In one small town, for example, Laç Vau i Dejes, in the northern Shkodra County, an entire neighborhood’s homes were covered with asbestos-cement tiles.

“It’s known as the Eternit neighborhood,” one local says, referring to the trademark name of the asbestos-cement of the gray roofing material. “I grew up there. I had no idea it was dangerous.”

Luckily for most Albanians, the use of the materials in home construction was not widespread, but old industrial sites and warehouses used to store farm animals and agricultural goods are still widely covered with the deadly material, much of it deteriorating, which makes it easier for the deadly fibers to spread in the air, escaping their bonding with the cement.

As part of its EU integration process, Albania will have to follow EU asbestos directives, action plans, initiatives and standards in the near future, experts say, and it will be an uphill battle to clean the country up.

Another problem is that despite the official ban, there are reports that small amounts of construction material that contains asbestos still gets into the country and is used.

“While large asbestos factories which operated in Albania during the Communist era are gone, a few small units and workshops continue to process asbestos,” notes a report by the International Ban Asbestos Secretariat. “Considering the historic use of asbestos in the country, asbestos-cement pipes and building materials and asbestos insulation are an integral part of the national infrastructure.”

There have been local and international efforts to deal with the situation. In April 2012, for example, a training program by the Albanian Institute of Public Health, supported by the World Health Organization, took place in Albania to train officials and workers on basic occupational health services to eliminate asbestos-related diseases. Albanian occupational physicians, medical doctors, nurses, technicians, health educators, epidemiologists and civil servants attended lectures by international experts.

As a result of the intensive discussions which took place in 2012, local and international experts came up with a joint statement highlighting the need to address the widespread hazard posed by asbestos in Albania which they say constitutes “a major threat to occupational and environmental health.”

After years “of lobbying and research into the asbestos topic in Albania, we are happy to see that this is the right moment when all the stakeholders in the country, especially the political ones, have started slowly but firmly to see clearly how very serious this problem is for us, and are collaborating with us on pushing toward some small but concrete actions,” says Hanxhari, the university professor and environmentalist, adding it is vital that political and social awareness increases to contain the harm already done and protect any further exposure of the population to the deadly material.

Reported and written by Andi Balla, this article has been produced as part the Human Rights Reporting Program of the Tirana Center for Journalistic Excellence. 

Posted in Featured, Human Rights, In-Depth View

Problems in education system making unemployment worse, officials say

Many Albanian university graduates in social sciences can only find jobs in call centres.

Many Albanian university graduates in social sciences can only find jobs in call centres. (Photo: Wikimedia)

Concern is growing in Albania over the quality of the education system and its effects on massive unemployment, particularly among young people, international and local experts say.

The World Bank’s regional director, Ellen Goldstein, said at a recent high-level conference that reforming the education system is the largest challenge Albania faces in improving job prospects for young people who are facing record unemployment.

Officials from the World Bank and the Albanian government say they are working together on a new strategy to reform the education system to better serve the needs of the labor market.

The World Bank has noted Albania still lags behind the region and must work harder to meet European standards.

Goldstein also offered figures indicating massive workforce under-utilization in Albania.

“About 40 percent of the working-age population is neither working nor looking for work, and are passive in this regard,” she said at the conference. “These figures are higher for youth, women and the poor.”

Goldstein added Albania needs a fundamental education reform to help increase employment by adapting to market needs.

Albania is facing difficult labor market challenges and should boost competitiveness, World Bank experts said.

For example, employment of women in Albania is extremely low, at only 30 percent, data shows.

Prime Minister Edi Rama said at the conference a radical reform at all levels of education was needed.

He said the government was working with the European Union and the World Bank to increase funding for education.

The government believes that vocational education will reduce unemployment, because young people will not follow general studies but take on marketable skills at an early age.

To that end, it is hoping to establish more trade schools, following the example of Germany and Austria, which have successful education systems and low unemployment rates.

The latest efforts come as data earlier this month showed youth unemployment climbed to a historic high of 33.5 percent in the second quarter of 2014, meaning one out of three people aged between 15 to 29 find themselves jobless, according to a labor force survey published by the country’s state statistical institute, INSTAT.

The unemployment rate for this category has increased by around 10 percent in the past couple of years rising from 23.6 percent in the first quarter of 2012 to 30.2 percent in early 2014 and 33.5 percent in the second quarter of 2014. Youth aged 15 to 29 years old who said they were students or attending training accounted for 62.7 percent of young men and women economically not active.

With Albania’s average population age at 31, one of the youngest in Europe along with Kosovo, youth unemployment has become a top concern although most young men and women nowadays manage to get a university degree, unveiling the inefficiency of the education system but also crisis impacts as the private sector has almost frozen new hiring. Around 12.6 percent of youth aged between 15 to 29 are classified as discouraged workers.

 

Posted in Featured, In-Depth View
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