Brief accord between Albania's polarised politicians over judicial reforms unlikely to last

Brief accord between Albania's polarised politicians over judicial reforms unlikely to last
Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama.
By Clare Nuttall in Bucharest July 25, 2016

In an extremely rare moment of unity, Albania’s ruling Socialists and opposition Democratic Party came together on July 21 to vote unanimously in favour of a package of wide-reaching judicial reforms. The vote followed heavy pressure from the EU and other international observers on the two sides to strike a deal, and should not be interpreted as a major shift in the adversarial relationship between Albania’s two main parties.

The reforms pave the way for the overhaul of Albania’s judicial system, which is seen as corrupt and unprofessional, with the most important changes concerning the independence of judges and prosecutors. The reforms are critical for the continuation of Albania’s progress towards joining the EU and they also have wide support among the Albanian population. However, they have been bitterly contested within Albanian political circles and it was unclear until the last minute whether Prime Minister Edi Rama would secure the two-thirds majority in the parliament needed for the package to be passed.

In the end, the reforms were approved by MPs around midnight on July 21 after the vote scheduled for earlier in the day was postponed following yet more last-minute objections from the Democratic Party.

The reforms are intended to create an independent judiciary, with key appointees to be proposed by a panel comprising international experts. Nominees will then need the backing of a two-thirds majority in the parliament. There are hopes this will allow Albania to finally make progress in deterring corruption and organised crime, and bring those responsible for crimes to justice. Under the current highly politicised system, many people including high-profile Albanians suspected of crimes continue to walk free.

Past crimes

There are several reasons for the Democratic Party’s objections to the reforms, and the party was only forced into line by repeated international interventions. Politicians off all political stripes are suspected of links to corruption and organised crime, but the Democrats arguably have the most to lose from the overhaul of the current system, as they were in power when the first set of post-communist reforms were made back in the early 1990s.

Arolda Elbasani of the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies said in a recent interview with bne IntelliNews that, “the problems of the judiciary and why it got so politicised go back to the start of transition”. After winning the country’s first free elections, the newly formed Democratic Party embarked upon a cleanup of the judiciary and public administration, which it pledged to purge of “communist collaborators”. However, communist-era appointees were replaced not by independent candidates but by political appointees, said Elbasani.

Although successive Socialist governments also wielded their influence over the judiciary thanks to their longer periods of control over the presidency, the Democrats are believed to have held greater sway. A comprehensive overhaul of the system could see criminal cases involving high-ranking Democrats, as well as politicians from other parties, being re-examined.

But aside from issues specifically concerning the reform of the judiciary, the extremely polarised relationship between the two main parties has resulted in a similar battle, albeit on a smaller scale, over numerous policies.

This relationship dates back to the fall of communism in Albania, when the Democratic Party was the first opposition party founded after the old single-party system was abolished. Meanwhile, the Socialist Party is the successor to the old Albanian Labour Party, which at a 1991 congress changed its name as well as abandoning its Stalinist politics.

Since then the two parties have alternated in power, and relations remain acrimonious, with accusations about crime and corruption frequently flying between them. There is also believed to be a high level of personal animosity between Rama and the Democrats’ long-term head Sali Berisha, who was replaced as leader by former Tirana mayor Lulzhim Basha in 2013 but remains a considerable force in Albanian politics.

This polarisation has already set Albania back on its path towards the EU. Well before the debate over judicial reform started 18 months ago, the country had been repeatedly criticised by international observers including the European Commission and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) for the high level of political polarisation and the challenge this poses to introducing reforms.

This time around, warnings from EU officials including Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn that a failure to adopt the reforms would lead to a stalling of Albania’s EU accession progress were the main reasons for the eventual decision of both political blocs to vote in favour.

There was also pressure from Washington, with the US ambassador to Albania Donald Lu implying there could be repercussions for individual MPs who failed to back the reforms. In an address to the Albanian parliament two days before the vote, Lu singled out Basha, accusing him of obstructing the process. “After 18 months of negotiations, they never came to an agreement. Why? Because it is clear that some of these politicians do not want a deal.”

Concessions and challenges

Rama’s desperation not to lose the EU candidate status the country won in June 2014 became apparent in the days before the vote, when he offered an increasing number of concessions to the opposition. A deal paving the way for the vote was finally struck at a meeting between Rama, Basha and Albania’s influential parliamentary speaker Ilir Meta on July 18.

This was hailed by international observers, with Hahn and EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini saying the constitutional amendments adopted by the parliament “constitute provisions for a deep and comprehensive judicial reform”. Meanwhile, the OSCE presence in Albania described the vote as “an important milestone, paving the way for the implementation of a meaningful justice reform”.

However, the OSCE also hinted at challenges to come. “The amendments adopted today must now be cascaded down through the primary and secondary legislation, the procedures and policies of the entire judicial system. Reform is not genuine until it is felt by Albanian citizens in their daily lives, across the country,” the July 22 statement said. “The manner in which the reform package is implemented is essential for the sustainability and the success of the reform process.”

Tirana is now hoping that EU leaders will agree on the start of its negotiations to joining the bloc at their summit in December. However, the lack of any lasting consensus between the two parties is likely to make itself felt again when implementing the reforms to the judiciary and launching other reforms needed for the country’s progress towards EU membership.