Fears Albania will erupt as brutal election campaign heads towards knife-edge result

Fears Albania will erupt as brutal election campaign heads towards knife-edge result
Opinion polls put the Socialists of Edi Rama (left) ahead of the Democratic Party of Lulzim Basha.
By Clare Nuttall in Glasgow April 23, 2021

One death, two shootings, incendiary rhetoric and allegations of misuse of state resources marred the run-up to the April 25 general election in Albania, and with polls showing an extremely tight result between the ruling Socialists and the main opposition parties, neither are likely to admit defeat without a fight.

Just four days before the election, Socialist Party activist Pjerin Xhuvani was killed and four people were injured in a shooting in the Albanian city of Elbasan. The assailant was a bodyguard for opposition politician Gazment Bardhi of the Democratic Party, who told a press conference that the confrontation broke out over money that was allegedly being distributed to voters from a car owned by a Socialist supporter. 

This was the second shooting in two days, as on April 19 27-year-old Bledar Okshtuni was shot in the leg with a pistol at the offices of the opposition Democratic Party in the town of Kavaja. 

The shootings came at the tail-end of a bad tempered campaign period that has seen several other physical confrontations between rival supporters of the main parties. Even President Ilir Meta was involved in a scuffle with Tirana municipal police at the headquarters of the opposition New Democratic Spirit (FRD) Party on March 12 as police in the Socialist-controlled city tried to evict the FRD from its offices.

The language used by politicians has also been concerning as tensions rise in the run-up to the vote. Edlira Gjoni, director of the Center for Public Impact, Tirana, told an online panel discussion organised by the Institute for the Danube Region and Central Europe (IDM) on April 21 of “derogatory” language used by the Socialist campaign in particular as well as statements from opposition politicians – including President Ilir Meta – about their readiness to do what it takes to “protect” the vote.

“Maybe these comments were made in the heat of the moment but they are not responsible and do not pave the way for a good outcome and good recognition of the result,” Gjoni warned. 

No clear winner 

Polls have tightened and while the Socialists are leading, it’s not clear whether the party will take more seats than the Democratic plus the Socialist Movement for Integration (LSI) combined; the two parties formed the Alliance for Change earlier this year, hoping their united efforts would make it possible to oust the ruling party. 

The Socialists’ lead over the Democrats has dwindled in the months before the election. While the LSI’s support has also declined, the MPs it is expected to get could just give the two opposition parties enough seats to deny Prime Minister Edi Rama the new majority he hopes to secure. 

The latest poll from Euronews/MRB published on April 19 puts the Socialists on 43%, slightly up on their scores in previous polls and 6.2 percentage points ahead of the Democrats on 36.8%. The LSI is on 5.8%, pushing the score of the two opposition parties up to 42.6%. 

A further 7.3% of respondents either didn’t know or refused to answer – a sizeable number that could sway the result in favour of either side – and a further 4% said they weren't intending to vote. 

Preparing for a disputed result 

Gjoni argued that as election day approaches, leading politicians from the three main parties, as well as the president, are paving the way to challenge the result should it go against them. “Do I see red flags? All over and every day,” she commented. 

Albania’s past experience of disputed elections doesn’t bode well. After the 2009 general election delivered a victory to the Democrats in the tightest race since Albania abandoned communism, the Socialists demanded a recount, with tens of thousands of people taking to the streets. Two years later, their defeat was still festering and clashes erupted between police and thousands of opposition supporters who turned out to demand the government’s resignation, resulting in three deaths.

The last parliamentary term was also an eventful one. Two years after the Socialists swept back to parliament with a majority in the June 2017 general election, the opposition decided to relinquish their mandates. After that, the Central Election Committee (CEC) filled their seats with reserve candidates from the 2017 election, but the real opposition existed outside parliament. 

To ensure the opposition’s return to the parliament after the next election, with support from the international community the electoral code was amended and the changes secured the backing of both government and opposition in June 2020. 

Gjoni comments that the Democratic Party is "extremely thirsty … it’s absolutely clear DP is again ready to become a key institutional player and go back to the parliament, but they think they deserve to go back only as winners”. 

Rama’s grand dreams versus Basha’s fresh start 

A week ahead of the election, Rama flew to the city of Kukes where he inaugurated the new international airport. Two days later, speaking to the Associated Press, the prime minster outlined plans to turn Albania into the western Balkan champion for tourism” and bring it into the “Champions League of tourism”. 

Much of Rama’s campaign has focused on bringing investment into Albania and specifically on investments into major infrastructure projects like new ports and airports – he envisages raising the number of international airports in the country from two at present to four or five. The prime minister has also sought to capitalise on his handling of the pandemic and the November 2019 earthquake. 

Critics warn that such high-profile projects won’t do much to address the concerns of ordinary Albanians, which are focused on the lack of jobs and mass emigration, especially of young people. Moreover, reporting on Rama's activities in the run-up to the vote has blurred the line between government activities and the Socialists' election campaign, and Reporters Without Borders recently detailed a deterioration in the media environment in the country. 

Basha, by contrast, is offering a fresh start to voters disillusioned after eight years of the Socialist Party. As it prepares to return to the parliament, the Democratic Party has been working to show voters it is ready to govern responsibly and guide Albania towards EU accession. While all the main parties want to take Albania into the EU, Basha has been especially vocal on this issue and has committed to launching accession talks within 100 days should he become PM. 

Both Basha and Meta – the former leader of the LSI until he quit the party to become Albania’s president – have repeatedly accused the Socialist government of corruption and claimed it is controlled by oligarchs. The extension of the concession for Tirana Airport to conglomerate Kastrati Group shortly before the election added fuel to these accusations, as did the numerous public-private partnership (PPP) projects agreed by Rama’s government. These PPPs, some launched after unsolicited offers from private companies, also drew criticism from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and other international partners.

The second Rama government’s increasingly heavy-handed approach was also apparent in the dawn demolition of a historic theatre in downtown Tirana. Police swept in to disperse artists and opposition activists who had spent the night in the old National Theatre to protect it, then went ahead with the demolition to make way for the construction of a new flagship building. 

Basha, meanwhile, has sought to distance himself from the former Democratic Party government under Sali Berisha, who was defeated by Rama in 2013. At the end of Berisha’s eight years in power, as bne IntelliNews wrote at the time, there were growing concerns about corruption and how the Albanian economy was “dominated by oligarchic and criminal interests”. Now, however, and memories of that era are fading, allowing Basha to reinvent the party for the present day. 

Tense atmosphere prevails

The intense rivalry between the Socialists on the one hand and the Democrats and LSI (backed by Meta) on the other have made for a polarised political environment and a highly tense campaign period, even before the violent attacks in recent days. 

The election “takes place within an atmosphere of political volatility and deep mistrust between the major political forces,” commented the OSCE/Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODHR) interim report published on April 9. “The tone of the campaign, at its early stage, lacks moderation, with accusations of corruption and links to organised crime,” added the report. 

Whoever the winner is there will be disputes, according to Gjoni, who noted the “intense atmosphere of mistrust”, the negative campaigning mainly from the Socialist Party and the interventions by the president. “Three elements are disturbing voters: the tone of the campaign and the derogatory language used by the Socialist Party; the heavy atmosphere and the tensions raised by the president.”

Concerning the Socialists’ campaign, Gjoni said: “Will Albanians be the victims of the campaign that talks more about the earthquake and [coronavirus] COVID-19 than about what really happened in the last eight years, responsibly and accountability, and what is expected in the next four [years].”

There are also strong signs that not all of the commitments made when the electoral code was amended last year are being adhered to. Among the changes are the introduction of electronic ID of voters to prevent double voting or voter impersonation, reforms to the CEC and better representation of women on party lists. 

Candidates were also supposed to be verified more stringently but here concerns have been raised, not least because among the 1,850 candidates running on April 25, the CEC gave the go-ahead for sitting Tom Doshi – a politician who has been banned from entering the US because of his “involvement in significant corruption” according to the US State Department – to stand for election.

One of the most worrying developments is the failure of the Albanian authorities to ensure the Albanian diaspora – amounting to around 1.5mn out of just over 3mn registered voters – to cast their votes in their countries of residence. 

“Though was an agreement reached in 2020, plans to secure votes from where [the diaspora] live fell apart,” Fatjona Mejdini, field network co-ordinator for the Balkans at the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime, told the IMD panel. On top of this, added Mejdini, “now it is even difficult to come to Albania to vote because of restrictions in Albania and in countries where they live.” On April 19, with just six days to go before the election, Albania imposed a 14-day quarantine on all arrivals from Greece and North Macedonia. 

Among the Albanians based outside the country seeking to exercise their right to vote are Kosovo’s recently elected Prime Minister Albin Kurti, who holds dual citizenship of the two counties. Not only that but three candidates backed by Kurti’s Vetevendosje will stand in the election and Kurti has strongly criticised the current government in Albania – leading to a rift with Rama. 

Meanwhile, international observers have repeatedly expressed concern about the situation in Albania in the run-up to the election. After the reports of Xhuvani’s death started to come out of Elbasan on April 21, the US and EU ambassadors called on political leaders to exercise restraint and clearly reject violence.

The big question now is not only which side will prevail on April 25 – and the large number of voters who declined to say which party they would back means the race is still open – but whether the result will be clear cut enough to head off a post-election standoff.