INTERVIEW: Albanian PM Rama stands firm as opposition threatens election boycott

INTERVIEW: Albanian PM Rama stands firm as opposition threatens election boycott
By Andrew MacDowall in Tirana April 21, 2017

Albania’s parliamentary election will go ahead as planned in June despite the opposition’s threat to boycott, Prime Minister Edi Rama told bne IntelliNews in an interview in Tirana.

Rama is convinced that his Socialist Party (PS) will be re-elected thanks to recovering economic growth, fiscal rectitude and reforms that he claims are the deepest the country has seen since the fall of communism. He said the government would use a new mandate to lift economic growth  to about 5% and attract more foreign direct investment (FDI) in sectors including tourism and energy. He also pledged to continue the fight against drug cultivation, and the complex and contentious judicial reform.

As Rama spoke, opposition MPs and supporters remained camped in a marquee outside his offices, continuing a boycott of parliament that began in February. The opposition Democratic Party (PD) has said that it will also refuse to participate in the elections scheduled for June 18 unless Rama steps down and is replaced by a technocratic government to oversee the poll. The party claims that the vote will otherwise not be free and fair, and accuses Rama of links to criminals and plans to rig the election using money from a drug trade that it says is rampant.

“Nobody can postpone the elections because there is no-one that has the power to do so,” Rama told bne IntelliNews. “The elections are for the people, not for the parties, it’s the day when the people matter and parties submit to their judgement. And at the end it’s not the opposition that produces freedom, it’s freedom that produces the opposition.”

Stalled reforms 

On April 17, German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel held a joint press conference with Rama and called for an end to the opposition’s boycott, warning that Albania could “enter in chaos” if it did not. The opposition’s departure from parliament has stalled long-awaited judicial reform that includes the vetting of judges and prosecutors intended to purge the system of those accused of corruption or incompetence. The reform is regarded as necessary for Albania, an EU candidate state since 2014, to start formal negotiations to join the bloc.

The EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini, and Commissioner for the European Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations, Johannes Hahn, have also criticised the boycott and urged Albania’s political parties to come together to complete the establishment of the vetting process.

Rama said that the reforms will help remove “the most corrupt people in the country by far, representing the most corrupt system in the country by far”, and linked the “anti-justice reform movement” to growing euroscepticism across the continent.

“Corruption goes together with modernisation, the more you modernise the less corruption there is. The more reform builds systems that are immune from corruption, the less corruption you have. We have worked on judicial reform for two and a half years. We did it fast and we did it deep and now implementation is a tough bit of politics. There is no way to stop something that for which the time has arrived. They can delay it but they can’t stop it.”

But the PD have continued their boycott, sitting out the first round of voting in parliament for a new president on April 19. Days earlier, the party’s leader Lulzim Basha told an audience in the marquee outside the government buildings that “there will be no election in Albania without a technical [caretaker] government… there won’t be any other way”, AP reported. Despite Rama’s claims that major inroads have been made in tackling graft, the country still ranks a lowly 83rd in the world on Transparency International’s corruption perception index, below India and Belarus.

Rama has been accused even by some neutral parties of arrogance and high-handedness in his approach to the opposition, but he told bne IntelliNews that he was ready to compromise.

“I said very clearly that every concession that does not constitute a breach of the constitution — we have an election date, and we have a government, these two things are not to be conceded — but everything else, it’s possible. Everything else. I think a lot of people in the EU understand.”

Rama also rejected opposition claims that the drug trade, particularly cannabis cultivation, is out of control. The police have mounted high-profile operations against a vast cannabis crop in the village of Lazarat, but critics say that this has merely led to the dispersal of the industry.  An independent observer told bne IntelliNews that this allegation is not entirely true, and Rama said that 99% of cannabis crops discovered were destroyed in 2016, against just 7% in 2013.

“It’s not spread around the country,” Rama said. “Lazarat was the symbol and everyone was attracted by the symbol - and it was our shame. We destroyed [the crop at] Lazarat. It’s a fight, but we are going to finish it for good very soon, and I’m confident that this year will be a U-turn because we know exactly where the plantations have been, there is strict monitoring. The signs are very, very positive. It’s a fight that’s tough but we’re going through it.”

Economy in the spotlight 

Rama is confident that he will win the election on the basis of a stronger economic performance and extensive reform. Figures from Albania’s official Institute of Statistics (INSTAT) suggest that GDP growth reached 3.46% in 2016, the highest level since 2010, driven partly by a 16% rise in exports in the fourth quarter.

One of the Rama government’s earliest moves was to bring in the IMF to sign a credit line deal to support fiscal consolidation. The deal concluded February and the Fund has praised Albania for the results, including changing a primary public deficit of 2% of GDP into a surplus of 0.2%, cutting the overall deficit from 5.2% to 2.2%, and raising tax revenue from the equivalent of 22.0% of GDP to 24.3%. The government is now committed continue fiscal tightening until public debt is brought down from over 70% to 45% of GDP.

Rama also trumpets reforms in the power sector — which he says have reduced system losses from 45% of the total to 28% and raised production 30% in 2016 alone – and education, where the UK’s Quality Assurance Agency helped “change education to go from a system that was a joke to real educational system”.

Rama says that following a period of structural reform, if re-elected the government will put a renewed focus on lifting economic growth through higher investment.

FDI rose 10.5% in 2016, but only to €983mn, a relatively modest sum, and Rama is somewhat vague about landmark investments that have been attracted during his tenure, mentioning by name only two hydroelectric power plant developments by Norway’s Statkraft, projects totalling €535m announced in 2013.

“FDI is not low compared to what we usually had [in the past] but it is not enough,” Rama said. “Our aim is to go beyond 5% growth if we want to have growth that has more impact on people. We are very, very confident that we will go beyond 5%, on one hand by increasing FDI, finalising more important projects in tourism, and on the other hand by implementing a programme we named ‘one billion for reconstruction’, which practically speaking is a system of project financing with private companies and banks for roads, schools, and hospitals.”

The opposition asserts that Rama’s commitment to reform is only skin-deep, and that construction work and the new-found dynamism of Tirana contrasts with poverty in the provinces that the government has been unable to address.

Meanwhile, the country’s EU future looks uncertain, not least due to the bloc’s own internal challenges, while Rama himself has admitted that tensions in the Balkans have been rising in recent months. Albania’s economy and international reputation have recovered greatly in the 20 years since the collapse of pyramid savings schemes and a disputed election brought it to the brink of civil war, but the country’s deep-seated challenges of corruption, low incomes, and bitter political divisions will take longer to uproot.