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Albania’s Elections: Where Does Albanian Democracy Go?

As Albanians head to the polls this Sunday, voters face a choice between the ruling Socialist Party (PS) and an opposition coalition comprised of the Democratic Party (PD) and Socialist Movement for Integration Party (LSI). PS is seeking a third term after eight years in power marked by sharp political polarization and dysfunction, a growing public perception that corruption is intractable, and glacial progress on Albania’s European Union (EU) membership. While PS leads in the polls, combined support for the PD and LSI puts them within striking distance of victory and the two parties have agreed to form a government should they win. As the election dust settles and the voters’ choice becomes clear, how will Albania’s parties react to the results?

Tense at the best of times, the political environment in Albania has become volatile. On Monday, Prime Minister Edi Rama, leader of PS, and Lulzim Basha, leader of PD, reacted to a shooting at a PD office with mutual recriminations, passing on an opportunity to lower the political temperature. Another allegedly election-related shooting occurred at a PS office on Wednesday. This is tragic but unsurprising as political leaders have largely relied on ad hominem attacks and unsubstantiated and incendiary accusations to mobilize voters, not policy-based arguments.

While the tone of the election has been negative, opposition participation in the election is a positive development. In 2019, almost all MPs from the two major opposition parties, PD and LSI, resigned in protest over perceived corruption and electoral fraud in the ruling party, triggering a political crisis. The opposition boycotted local 2019 elections in further protest, which PS then swept, ensuring its dominance at the national and local level. As the crisis continued into 2020, the EU made it clear that it would not open membership negotiations with Albania until it approved electoral reforms. PS complied, enabling the opposition to participate in the 2021 national elections.

With this in mind, here are three questions to consider after the election:

Will the opposition participate in Parliament if it loses?

The crux of the opposition’s argument for quitting parliament and refusing to participate in the 2019 local elections was that the electoral process was unfair to which there is some truth. Albanian elections have been tarnished by vote buying and voter intimidation. Prior to the election, the ruling PS government did pass electoral reforms that purported to address opposition concerns by restructuring the Central Election Commission, improving voter access to registration, and implementing biometric voter identification, among other changes. However, some reforms were not fully implemented in time for the election, and PS also passed additional reforms without genuine PD and LSI input. While difficult to claim after deciding to participate in the election, PD and LSI could declare the election was unfair and refuse to sit in Parliament. This would prolong the political crisis, worsen polarization, undermine support for democracy, and likely delay the opening of EU membership negotiations yet again.

What effect will a third PS term have on Albania’s democracy if it wins?

All political parties share responsibility for Albania’s increasingly combative and divisive politics. But, PS plays an outsize role as the ruling party in the trajectory of Albania’s democracy and has sent concerning signals about its commitment to democratic norms, especially the freedom of the press. For example, Prime Minister Rama proposed an anti-defamation package ostensibly to fight fake news and slander in 2019 and again in 2020. This package has been criticized by the Venice Commission, an advisory body of constitutional experts, as likely to have a “chilling effect” on free speech and expressed concern about the broad powers to regulate media content given to a government agency whose independence could not be assured. Journalists and civil society groups view the package as enabling censorship of embarrassing stories about government corruption and crime. There is a good chance that PS will interpret winning a third term as an endorsement of its governing approach and a validation of divisive rhetoric, with worrying implications for democratic norms.

Do Albanian politicians still see EU membership as an obtainable goal?

The EU has confirmed that Albania can become an EU member if it meets the political, rule-of-law, and economic requirements, but there is a growing suspicion among Albanian politicians that this is untrue. This suspicion comes from three different sources. First, there have been repeated delays in opening negotiations despite multiple EU recommendations in 2019 to do so. Second, the EU overhauled its membership process in 2020, making it possible to reopen completed parts of negotiations – seen by some as a way to prolong negotiations indefinitely. Third, there is the challenge of internal EU politics. Some EU members, like France – which forced the overhaul of the membership process – and Denmark, are enlargement skeptics. Other EU members, like Greece and Bulgaria, have exercised their veto power to freeze negotiations over issues unrelated to criteria for membership. Altogether, it is not unreasonable for politicians to see membership as a mirage, leading politicians to conclude that the status quo is both easier and inevitable. This conclusion undermines the incentives to implement the painful reforms necessary to join the EU, leaving Albanian democracy unconsolidated and vulnerable on the periphery of Europe.

The election aftermath provides an opportunity for a political reset where all parties can recommit to democratic practices and norms. Regardless of who wins, Albania’s parties should seize this opportunity. The health of Albania’s democracy depends on it.