BALKAN BLOG: General election is do or die for Albania’s EU future

BALKAN BLOG: General election is do or die for Albania’s EU future
The latest polls indicate Prime Minister Edi Rama's Socialists are close to an absolute majority.
By Clare Nuttall in Bucharest June 22, 2017

It’s been an extremely turbulent lead up to Albania’s postponed general election on June 25. A threatened boycott by the opposition Democrats, who launched a tent protest outside the government office, and a mysterious poisoning of Democratic activists at a recent demonstration have all added to the drama.

The latest polls — which are notoriously unreliable in Albania — are showing a nine-point advantage for Prime Minister Edi Rama’s Socialists. The record of reforms achieved, or at least initiated, during Rama’s first term seem to be standing him in good stead with the population ahead of Sunday’s vote, though it’s not clear whether the party will gain a sufficient majority to rule alone.

Even more important than the result, however, is what the election means for Albania’s path to EU accession. A candidate country since June 2014, Albania needs this election to be free and fair for it to finally progress to the negotiation stage.

Fortunately, from this point of view, the rightwing Democratic Party (DP) agreed to take part in the election, in exchange for concessions wrung from the ruling Socialists — notably the inclusion of ministers nominated by the Democrats in the current government. The deal was reached under heavy pressure from EU and US diplomats, and helped by the reluctance of the two main parties’ leaders to be seen as responsible for jeopardising the country’s future.

The big question ahead is less whether the Democrats or the Socialists will emerge ahead on June 25, than whether the losing side will peacefully concede defeat. Earlier this year, with the Democrats insisting they would carry through the threatened election boycott, Albania looked to be heading for its worst political crisis for decades; the last time a party boycotted a general election was back in 1996, the year before the country erupted into mass violence.

Albanian politicians still don’t have a great record of accepting election defeat gracefully, and it remains uncertain whether the current entente between the two main parties will continue post election in the country’s extremely adversarial political arena. However, observers consider that the pre-election standoff and subsequent deal between the two main parties could actually lead to a better than usual outcome.

“This time things could be different, because the DP's threatened boycott of parliament resulted in getting its nominees into a caretaker government ahead of polling day and in boosting bipartisan monitoring of the elections,” says Gabriel Partos, Europe analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit.

Natalia Otel Belan, deputy regional director for Europe, Eurasia and South Asia at the Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE), also anticipates a more amicable reception of the result than after some previous elections, following the internationally-brokered deal. “The fact that the boycott ended in a negotiation by both main parties is an indication that their common objective is that Albania starts its EU negotiations later this year,” she says.

Belan is optimistic that “the old style of politics is behind [Albania]”, although she stresses that “continued pressure from the EU and the US is crucial because politicians, especially in this region, are not known for being particularly accountable to their promises. After the elections both citizens and Albania’s external partners need to stay engaged.”

Focus on the issues

The primary issue by a long way heading into this election is the opening of Albania’s first EU negotiation chapters. The priority for most Albanians, according to Belan, “is not necessarily just membership of the EU club, but what the process brings with it. Citizens hope Albania will become a stronger democracy with strong democratic institutions and a government that delivers to its citizens, but also an improved economy where citizens can find jobs, businesses can prosper and create jobs.”

While both main parties say they are firmly behind Albania’s EU accession, the record of the Socialists during their last term in office is what sets them apart from their rival from the centre-right. Some of Rama’s planned reforms are so far uncompleted, but there is enough evidence of progress — from obtaining EU candidate status in 2014, to the launch of the campaign against the informal economy in 2015, to the ongoing judicial reforms — to establish a solid track record.

“The Socialist Party has the upper hand because they showed their aim is to introduce reforms. They have a proven record on designing specific measures to address the economy, improve the quality of doing business, simplify regulation and taxes. Of course there is more to do, but while Albania was in the hands of the Democratic Party, the reforms were much more modest,” Belan tells bne IntelliNews.

There are strong signs ordinary Albanians are fed up with negative rhetoric and smear campaigns — one of the favourite campaigning tricks in the past was for politicians to accuse their opponents of drug trafficking or involvement in organised crime — and are more interested in reform. Indeed, although it got the party some participation in the current government, the DP’s parliamentary boycott could actually have hurt its chances heading into the election, by showing voters it was willing to risk the country’s EU future for its own gain.

“The opposition leader, Lulzim Basha, has struggled to establish himself both at the top of his DP and as a credible leader of his country. Some who might vote for the DP would have been put off by the party's three-month boycott of parliament and resort to street politics, which was finally called off only in late May,” says Partos. “Having said that, the DP's threatened boycott of the elections also resulted in getting its appointees into a caretaker government ahead of polling day — improving Mr Basha's image as somebody who can achieve his objectives — regardless of the methods required.”

The other area where the DP falls behind its rival is on judicial reform. Again under heavy international pressure, its MPs backed framework legislation on the reforms, which was adopted unanimously in July 2016. Since then, however, the party has consistently dragged its feet on approving further steps, in particular on setting up a vetting body to check judges and prosecutors for criminal links, which was eventually approved just days before the election.

To the ballot boxes

It does, however, remain to be seen whether his record in office is enough to propel Rama’s Socialists to a conclusive election victory. “With poverty still widespread, corruption and incompetence in state institutions rampant, there are many reasons for dissatisfaction, and the SP may not secure an overall majority — let alone the 3/5 margin required for making constitutional changes,” says Partos.

This could be tricky for the Socialists, given the abrupt deterioration in relations with its current coalition partner, the Socialist Movement for Integration (LSI). The two parties have turned on each other recently, with Rama blaming the LSI for many of the ills still faced by the country. The final breach in the two parties’ relationship came on June 20, when the LSI filed a criminal complaint against Rama, accusing him of breaking the law by urging police and teachers to help the Socialists’ campaign. Rama responded by making it clear there is no longer any chance of the Socialist-LSI coalition being renewed after the election, though that pledge may not last longer than the election count.

In Albania’s recent political history, the LSI, as the country’s third largest party, has repeatedly played kingmaker. Indeed, it was in a powerful enough position to persuade Socialist MPs to back its leader, Ilir Meta, to become Albania’s new president in April. Whatever their differences, the Socialists and Democrats are understood to be hoping they will both eat into the LSI’s support base in the upcoming election.

This is one more area where the two bitter rivals are unexpectedly seeing eye to eye. Continued pressure from both voters and the international community is likely to keep their rapprochement alive and — barring upsets on election day — allow Albania to achieve the long-held dream of opening its first EU negotiation chapters this year.