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.