Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama has replaced eight of the 14 members of the cabinet in an unexpected government reshuffle amid mass student protests.
Students started protesting in early December, calling for a list of eight demands to be fulfilled, of which the chief ones are halving student tuition fees and doubling the budget for higher education. Another of the reasons for the student protests is alleged corruption in the education sector.
Rama announced the names of the new ministers on December 28 during his address at the assembly of his governing Socialist Party. Most of the ministers that were sacked were well known politicians who served in the two Socialist-led governments, while the new ministers are mostly political unknowns.
He accused many ministers of failing due to their “inertia” as a result of the weak opposition; Albania’s main opposition party, the Democratic Party boycotted the parliament for months in 2018, only returning in late 2018 to support the student protesters.
“The lack of opposition has paralysed part of the senses and has reduced some of our responsive capabilities and leadership capacities,” the prime minister said according to a party statement.
In the ministry most immediately linked to the protests, Lindita Nikolla was sacked as education minister and replaced by her deputy Besa Shahini.
Rama also replaced deputy prime minister Senida Mesi with Erjon Brace, who will lead the implementation of a special programme to meet the students’ eight demands. Rama expects the document to be presented in the first weeks of January.
But the wide-reaching reshuffle extended well beyond the education sector. In two key changes, minister of foreign affairs Ditmir Bushati was replaced by Gent Cakaj, while the position of finance and economy minister Arben Ahmetaj was given to Anila Demaj.
Minister of infrastructure and energy Damian Gjiknuri was replaced by Belinda Balluku. Agriculture minister Niko Peleshi is succeeded by Blendi Cuci and culture minister Mirela Kumbaro by Elva Margariti.
Also among the changes was the appointment of Eduard Shalsi as the new minister of state for entrepreneurship, replacing Sonila Qato,
While Tourism Minister Blendi Klosi kept his job, Rama warned him achieve positive results by June 2019 if he is to avoid being sacked too.
Despite no longer holding top government positions, Rama said that the sacked ministers will be engaged in the pre-election campaign for the June 2019 municipal vote.
“Every member of the party's leadership will have to show results otherwise they will no longer be in the party's presidency,” Rama warned.
Rama looks ahead to third mandate
The student protests have clearly rattled Rama, who secured a second term as prime minister in the June 2017 general election, which saw his Socialists increase their majority enough to dispense with their former coalition partner the Socialist Movement for Integration (LSI).
The opposition Democratic Party, which also accuses the government of corruption and inefficiency, supported the students in their demands. Its MPs returned to the parliament in mid-December after a boycott lasting several months, saying the move was solely to support the students’ demands.
The student protests came on top of a separate series of protests by a group of Tirana residents opposed to the construction of the capital’s new ring road. Residents of the Astir district were involved in violent clashes with police at protests in November.
Rama confirmed that the situation in higher education is not good as many bylaws needed for the implementation of planned reforms were not made. Saying that education reforms are one of the deepest and most meaningful reforms that should be made, he talked of the problems in the education system as part of a wider failure to fully implement reforms across the board.
Yet during his speech to the Socialist Party, the prime minister described this as an opportunity to learn as the party looks ahead to securing a new mandate in the next general election.
“The students have given us the opportunity to learn what the way for obtaining a third mandate is,” Rama said, according to his party's statement.
Rama won his second mandate with an overwhelming majority in June 2017. The current Socialist-led government aims to lead the country towards the start of EU membership negotiations expected in June 2019.
Albania is expected to hold its next general election in June 2021.