Albania: Elections should improve EU prospects

Albania's 2013 national elections marked an important milestone of democratic maturity that will position the country for EU membership. Photo: Hektor Pustina/AP

PRISHTINA, July 28, 2013 ― Albania’s June 2013 national elections marked an important milestone of democratic maturity that will position the country for European Union membership.

The left-wing coalition, led by Edi Rama and the Socialist Party (PS), achieved a convincing victory, defeating incumbent Prime Minister and longtime leader Sali Berisha. The electoral process ran relatively smoothly and the losing party accepted defeat cordially, considering the heavily contested, high stakes elections. There have been reciprocal claims of fraud since some results were challenged, but they remain minor.

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The high level of electoral fraud in previous elections, especially during 2009, was not present this time around. International observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said, “Voting proceeded relatively well, albeit with some procedural irregularities,” while European Union (EU) officials praised the “overall orderly manner” of the elections.

The process also saw a peaceful transfer of power from the previously ruling Democrats to the Socialists and Prime Minister-designate Edi Rama. The satisfactory conduct of these elections, the change in country’s leadership, and the commencement of required reforms are expected to bring Albania closer to joining the EU.

The outgoing prime minister and leader of the Democratic Party (PD), Sali Berisha, conceded defeat to the head of the rival Socialists only a few days after the elections. In a surprise statement, Berisha also went on to resign from the chairmanship of PD and called for party elections. The entire experience presented a substantial shift from previous bouts of disputed electoral results, and heated and bitter exchanges by the two main parties.

Even with his withdrawal from party leadership, Berisha is expected to continue to pull the strings behind the scenes. Albanian commentators have stated, “Berisha nuk ka ikur” ― meaning he’s not gone yet.

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The former prime minister formed his party following the fall of communism in the early 1990s. Berisha’s favored candidate to take over, Lulzim Basha ― currently the mayor of capital city Tirana ― recently won the party elections in a landslide victory. Basha is young and charismatic, but politically less-experienced than Berisha. While he represents the future, he has also been a right-hand-man to Berisha.

In the next elections, Basha is expected to be a serious contender for the prime ministership, attempting to defeat Rama as he did in the 2011 mayoral elections in Tirana. This will only be the case if Basha is not seen as a proxy to Berisha’s continued leadership, which remains to be seen.

Albanians’ view of Sali Berisha will likely remain divided. This is not uncommon in a country with a very polarized political landscape and view of recent history. On the positive side, during the former PM’s tenure, Albania became a NATO member; its citizens were granted visa liberalization rights by the EU; and the country experienced rapid economic growth, especially during Berisha’s first term in office. However, Berisha’s time leading government was also marred by scandals, corruption, and political patronage. The latter is a general systemic issue in Albanian politics.

The election results showed that voters indeed penalized the Democratic Party for its governance, rather than rewarded the Socialist Party for providing a viable political alternative. The Socialist Party’s political power within the parliament did not grow compared to the elections of 2009. They secured only 66 seats, five MP positions short of securing the majority.

At the same time, PS’s electorate grew by 15 percent compared to 2009 or by about 90,000 votes. The real winner in Albania’s elections therefore seemed to be Ilir Meta, the leader of the Socialist Movement for Integration (LSI). Meta’s party had joined Sali Berisha’s government in 2009 and swung back to the left in these elections to form a coalition with the Socialists. The LSI’s well-organized party structures and its leader’s political pragmatism secured Meta the position of kingmaker. Moreover, Meta’s ties to the PD led government and scandals that afflicted him personally and his party did not seem to matter at the polls.

The incoming Prime Minister will inherit a number of challenges. First, the new government needs to tackle the decelerated economic growth and the rising fiscal debt through stringent structural economic reforms. Second, the government needs to undertake political and judicial reforms that will contribute to the better functioning of independent democratic institutions. Third, the government must adopt a rigorous action plan to meet the criteria for EU membership. There is a lot to be done.

The opposition will also play an important role in Albania’s democratic and European future. The PD and Basha must show that they will use democratic means to provide policy alternatives, and work together with the government for Albania’s strategic national and foreign policy initiatives. This sort of cooperation is still novel in Albanian politics, yet these elections offered real promise. The EU and more importantly Albania’s citizens hope this will be a sign of more to come.

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Pleurat Halili

Pleurat has written international news for the Communities since 2012. He is an entrepreneur, former UN staff member and a graduate of Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.  He is interested in economics, politics, media, the European Union, and Southeastern Europe.


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