After eight years of Socialist Party (SP) rule under Prime Minister Edi Rama the left-wing opposition party Socialist Movement for Integration (LSI) and the right-wing Democratic Party of Albania (DP) have formed a pact. With this historic coalition they hope to form a fist against the SP and get Albania, which is struck hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, back on its feet. Opposition parties have been boycotting parliament, with the DP and LSI refusing to participate in the 2019 local elections as a consequence. The opposition accuse Rama of election fraud and widespread corruption. Currently, Prime Minister Rama is feeling the pressure, as he is not likely to maintain his majority in parliament in the 25 April 2021 elections. The new elections will be the first under the electoral changes of November 2020. Rama was eager to implement the electoral changes, which he hopes could help him win a third term as prime minister.
Boycott of Rama parliament by largest opposition parties
In November of 2018 students took to the streets to protest against high tuition fees, degraded education system and poor housing. This sparked nationwide protest against the Socialist government of Rama, who had been a relatively popular figure domestically and internationally before becoming prime minister. Shortly afterwards, the main right-wing opposition party DP under Lulzim Basha left parliament to boycott the Rama government. The DP accused parliament of being formed “through the votes of the crime and the mafia”. In the 2019 local elections the major opposition parties DP and LSI refused to participate, putting a strain on the legitimacy of the election won by Rama’s SP. Several instances of voter fraud were registered during those elections by international observers too. In the upcoming April 2021 election the DP and LSI announced that they would be participating again, hoping to put an end to eight years of SP rule. They have learned from their election boycott, which benefitted them little.
Electoral changes implemented by Rama against advice of EC
Rama has been feeling the pressure and as a result has implemented several electoral changes, which could help him win a third term. Against the advice of the European Commission (EC), and without cross-party consent, the SP implemented the electoral changes in November 2020. The two most important elements are the decrease of the electoral threshold, from 3% to 1%, making it easier for smaller parties to be elected. At the same time forming a pre-election alliances has become more difficult, as parties that want to form a pre-election coalition must now submit a joint list of candidates. In previous elections parties were able to form pre-election coalitions easily, with multiple parties with separate lists joining forces. Under the new system they need to register as “a single electoral subject” rather than running separately, after which their votes are counted together. If parties wish to form a pre-election coalition they first need to agree on a single list of candidates, which is complicated.
Even though the EC advised against the electoral changes, Rama seemed eager to implement them. He is not expected to maintain the majority in parliament that he currently enjoys and he is looking for ways to remain in power for a third term. The justification of the implementation without cross-party consent, is that it would bring the country into the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) framework. However, opposition parties argue that it is solely Rama’s self-interest which are at stake. If he is to remain prime minister, Rama needs to ally himself with other elected MPs. The other major opposition parties will do everything in their power to get rid of Rama, so his only chances lie with other minor parties. Both electoral changes help to increase the amount of parties in parliament, with which Rama’s little hope for a another four year term as prime minister rests. The consequence is that political consensus, after years of polarisation, has become more complex. This is arguably the opposite of what the country needs in a time of crisis, as the EC concerns read.
EU accession talks in year marked by COVID-19 pandemic
Despite making progress towards EU membership in 2020, the year also uncovered once more Albania’s political problems. The country officially joined NATO in 2009, shortly after which it started it formally applied for EU membership. Albania became an official candidate in 2014. Political agreement within the EU was reached about starting accession talks with Albania in April of 2020, but there are reasons why both France and Dutch governments had long opposed the accession of Albania. The country has not made enough progress in terms of democratization and continues to struggle fighting organised crime and corruption. Despite Albania improving its score by three points on the Corruption Perception Index (CPI), with a score of 36 out of 100 it remains one of Europe’s most corrupt countries.
Especially visible in the year marked by the COVID-19 pandemic, the authoritarian and corrupt elements of the Rama rule have become more apparent. Even though the country was the only in the region to have managed to increase its score in the Democracy Index in 2020, the ongoing political polarization is worrying. Despite western allies urging Rama to compromise and implement electoral changes with the consent of major opposition parties, Rama refused. So far Rama has consistently aligned its policies with the West, slowly working towards EU membership. It remains to be seen if this was a mere bump in the road, or a structural change of policy. Given all of this, it is no coincidence that the OSCE has confirmed that it will send 274 observers to monitor the April 2021 elections. For the EU free and fair elections remain a precondition, making the 2021 election process important for Albania in yet another way.
13-point agreement between opposition parties DP and LSI
In response to the November 2020 electoral changes the country’s largest opposition parties, which have been boycotting parliament since 2019, have formed a coalition. The PS of Rama currently holds 74 seats out of 140 seats. The DP (43) and LSI (19), with their allies, hope to challenge Rama’s majority. In recent polls the PS is expected to lose its majority, but remain the country’s largest party with 40-45% of the votes. The DP can count to receive 31-38% and the LSI is likely to receive 9-12% of the votes. Rama anticipates losing his majority, hence the electoral changes, but it remains to be seen if he can be toppled by the newly formed DP-LSI coalition. With the lowering of the electoral threshold, some new parties hope to find their way into parliament as well.
Both parties will be running separately, but in a 13-point agreement they pledge to form a governing coalition if they gain a combined majority. Thereby they avoid the recently installed rules by Rama, which complicate coalition formation in elections. The parties also promise to lead the country out of the current economic crisis, largely as a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic, and make Albania comply with the EU membership conditions. It is a coalition united in opposition, rather than ideology. The DP are a centre-right liberal-conservative party, while the LSI is described as centre-left and social-democratic in its ideology. Nonetheless, the overarching goals of the parties overlap, especially in times of crisis such as these. It remains to be seen how much support they can muster in a time marked by curfews and the role out of the Albanian COVID-19 vaccination program.
Image: Flickr (Lulzim Basha)