BALKAN BLOG: Albania heads for political crisis as Democrats threaten election boycott

BALKAN BLOG: Albania heads for political crisis as Democrats threaten election boycott
The opposition Democrats have been boycotting parliament since February.
By Clare Nuttall in Bucharest March 28, 2017

Albania is heading for potentially the worst political crisis in 20 years as the opposition Democratic Party threatens to boycott the June general election, a move that would seriously undermine the legitimacy of the vote.

The Democrats claim they want Prime Minister Edi Rama from the ruling Socialist Party to step down and for an interim government to prepare for the free and fair elections they won’t get under Rama. However, it looks more like the daily protests and parliamentary boycott launched by the party in February are really aimed at delaying the ongoing judicial reforms in the country.

Protests have been ongoing since the Democrats brought 10,000 people onto the streets of Tirana on February 18. Opposition supporters pitched a huge marquee opposite Rama’s office, from where DP leader Luzhim Basha has said he will host an alternative parliament.

While the protests have not yet resulted in clashes with security forces, they are taking place in a heated atmosphere. On March 18, one month since the start of the protests, participants burned an effigy of Rama. Around 1,800 police officers were dispatched for the protests, and criminal proceedings have been launched against Basha, accusing him of inciting violence.

Rama, whose Socialists and their coalition partner the Socialist Movement for Integration (LSI) have a comfortable majority in parliament, has so far resisted opposition calls for him to step down, though he did announce a mini reshuffle in mid-March. Among the ministers removed during the reshuffle was Interior Minister Saimir Tahiri, who has come under fire from the opposition for alleged links to organised crime. The DP says the replacement of just four ministers is not enough and they want Rama gone.

The prime minister in turn has accused the protesters of trying to block the ongoing judicial reforms and specifically the implementation of the critical vetting law, which will remove corrupt judges and prosecutors from their positions.

Last summer, the DP had dragged its feet on the approval of a package of legislation that formed the cornerstone of the judicial reforms. In the event, under heavy pressure from Albania’s external partners including the EU and the US, MPs from the party voted in favour in July. More recently, however, the Democrats are understood to be attempting to slow the adoption of further measures to implement the reforms.

Gabriel Partos, Europe analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit, tells bne IntelliNews that the reform process has now stalled. “In the course of lengthy negotiations about the details of the judicial reform, the DP has cited several reasons for its concerns, including its objections to close international supervision of the vetting of the judiciary,” he says. “ Another likely reason is that many of the judges now to be vetted - and possibly facing dismissal - were appointed in the mid 1990s (during the purge of communist-era judges) when the DP was in power, and in a number of cases they have maintained close links with the DP.”

This was confirmed by Arolda Elbasani of the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies in an interview with bne IntelliNews last year. She pointed out that when judges were replaced after the collapse of communism, “they replaced the judges not with professionals but with political partisans”.

This is not to say that the Democrats are necessarily inherently more corrupt than other political parties, but being in power at the time of the original wholesale clean-out of the judiciary has put them in a protected position tthat they appear reluctant to give up.

Collapsing pyramids

Since the start of the parliamentary boycott, there have already been delays to the reform process, including the failure to appoint members of the vetting body, whose role will be to assess the backgrounds of judges and prosecutors.

With this strong incentive to block the parliament’s work, it will be difficult for Rama to persuade the DP to return to the negotiating table or to participate in the upcoming election.

As a result, Albania is heading for arguably its most serious political crisis since the mass unrest under the Democrats in 1997, when the collapse of pyramid schemes brought the country to the edge of civil war.

“A pre-arranged boycott of the kind envisaged by the DP and other opposition parties would be unprecedented since multi-party elections were first held in 1991,” says Partos. The last time any kind of boycott took place was in 1996, when the Socialists withdrew part-way through election day.

“In the past two decades both the conduct of elections and the rule of law have improved markedly - not least because of international pressure - so a boycott would be much more difficult to justify. Nevertheless, the threat of a boycott may well force the Rama government to grant some concessions to the opposition because it would not want to jeopardise Albania’s chances of starting EU accession talks.”

Albania gained EU candidate status in 2014, and Tirana is hoping to open its first negotiating chapters this year. However, this will depend on progress with the judicial reforms and free elections on June 18.

In February, the European parliament approved a resolution on Albania that welcomed the adoption of a new justice reform strategy for 2017-2020, but called for further reforms and expressed concern over still high corruption levels and political influence over key anti-corruption institutions.

It’s not clear to what extent Rama will decide to appease the opposition in an attempt to ensure the judicial reforms are not derailed and to persuade the Democrats to take part in the elections. However, a failure to progress with Albania’s EU accession process would undermine the main achievements of his government in securing candidate status.

It would also send out a negative signal to foreign investors, many of whom are already uneasy over the situation with the rule of law in Albania, given incidents such as the attack on Lebanese businessman Fadi Mitri, who was beaten up in September, causing his firm, Omnix International, to pull a $450mn tourism investment.

Moreover, the political tensions and approaching elections in Albania come at a time of increased strife across the Balkans. Macedonia is entering its third year of political crisis, with the long-standing political conflict now taking on an ethnic dimension that threatens to embroil neighbouring Albania and Kosovo. Montenegro’s government is dealing with the aftermath of an attempted coup. The ever-strong tensions between Belgrade and Pristina have been on an upward trend since the beginning of this year as elections approach in Serbia and the normalisation process stalls.

Groups in countries including Albania, Macedonia and Hungary are turning on the west in general, with billionaire philanthropist George Soros becoming the focal point for their anger; protesters in Tirana held signs saying ““Mafia Rama & Soros F*** Off”. But this also signals a wider dissatisfaction with proponents of liberal democracy such as the EU, who are increasingly accused of “interference”.

At the same time, the wider geopolitical landscape has been in a state of flux since the election of Donald Trump in the US, meaning that the players who usually act as brokers and peacemakers in the region are otherwise engaged. The EU is distracted by Brexit and is focussing on its internal divisions, while Washington is reviewing its former role as the proponent of liberal democracy, giving an opportunity for Russia to push back into the Balkans.