Diplomats say Albania needs a strong opposition as Democratic Party leader steps down

Diplomats say Albania needs a strong opposition as Democratic Party leader steps down
By bne IntelliNews March 21, 2022

The head of Albania’s main opposition party, Lulzim Basha, has resigned from the leadership of the Democratic Party after the party’s latest election defeat. 

During his nine years at the helm, the Democrats have suffered repeated defeats at the hands of Prime Minister Edi Rama’s Socialist Party, which is now serving a third consecutive term unprecedented in post-communist Albania. 

Statements from western embassies in Tirana said they respected Basha’s decision and stressed that Albania needs a strong opposition to hold the government accountable. 

Basha has been under pressure to resign for months after he expelled the Democratic Party’s former leader Sali Berisha from the party’s parliamentary group, prompting Berisha to mount a campaign to remove him. 

The immediate trigger for his decision to step down was the Democrats’ poor showing in six local by-elections held on March 6. The elections were seen as a litmus test for political sentiment in Albania almost a year after the April 2021 general election. 

The ruling Socialist Party won five of the six seats, and the sixth was won by a candidate put up by Berisha’s splinter group from the Democratic Party. 

This came after two successive general election defeats for Basha’s Democrats, in 2017 and 2021. 

“I’ve decided to take a step back by resigning from the post of the leader of the Democratic Party,” Basha said on March 21. He added that he will continue to be involved in the Democratic Party. 

Basha, a former mayor of the Albanian capital Tirana, has headed the Democratic Party since July 2013. He succeeded Berisha, who stood down after losing to the Socialists in the election earlier that year. 

He previously held several ministerial positions, including those of foreign minister and interior minister. 

Basha claimed the April 2021 election was not fair, and has repeatedly called it an “electoral massacre”. 

Despite his defeat, he was re-elected party leader with an overwhelming majority in June last year. 

However, since the by-elections this month he has been under pressure to quit. Last week, Democratic Party MP Grida Duma revealed that the party’s parliamentary group had called on Basha to step down. 

Berisha, a former president of Albania, has been seeking to oust Basha ever since the latter expelled him from the party’s parliamentary group in May, when Berisha was sanctioned by the US for what the State Department said was “significant corruption”. 

His efforts culminated in an attempt by a large crowd of his supporters to storm the Democratic Party headquarters in Tirana, which left several MPs inside the building in fear of their lives. Berisha was expelled after the violent attack on the party headquarters, but he has a sizeable following among party members that are disillusioned with the April 2021 general election defeat. 

One of Basha’s deputies is expected to take over running the party until a successor is elected. 

“We respect the decision of @lulzimbasha_al to step down from  @pdshqiperi chairmanship. As any other democracy, #Albania  needs a strong opposition that holds government accountable and in check,” said a statement from the EU delegation in Albania posted on Twitter. 

“We expect the new leadership to play this crucial role and to continue upholding #EU integration as fundamental goal of its action, fostering reforms and supporting #justicereform and the fight against #corruption.”

“The decision by Lulzim Basha to step down as chairman of the Democratic Party today deserves respect. Putting party and country over personal considerations is a sign of true leadership,” said the US embassy in Tirana.  

“We hope this decision will set a path for the Democratic Party to move forward toward the future; to strengthen Albania’s special relationship with the United States; to reinforce support for reforms and other efforts necessary for Albania’s bid to join the EU; and to reaffirm the democratic principles and ideals on which it was founded.  A strong opposition that can be ready to lead is essential for democracy. US support for democracy and the commitment to fighting corruption and impunity remain unchanged.”

Also commenting on Basha’s resignation, the UK embassy in Tirana said: We encourage a free, fair internal election process that allows the DP to move forward and supports Albania’s Euro-Atlantic future. Every democracy needs a strong opposition that holds the Government to account and provides a viable alternative. All political parties need to promote and elect representatives of the highest ethical and professional standards.”