By Nisida Gjoksi (London School of Economics)

Background
Albania broke-free from a 45 years long totalitarian communist regime in the 1990s. The road to democratization was strongly interlinked with the process of EU accession and the country received the candidate status in June 2014 and became a NATO member in 2009. Its path to democratization has been hard, with many reversals to authoritarian practices, threatening the well-functioning of the state administration. In the new democracies of the Western Balkans in general as in Albania in particular, political parties together with other state institutions are highly distrusted from citizens. While this distrust is partially a legacy of the communist past, it is as well further reinforced from party-state dynamics in the current transition context. While in the past the communist state ruled under the fused party-state relations repressing citizens’ need, in the present, politically motivated hiring and firing and other corruptive practices eroded the state administrations of its capacity to serve the citizens. Such bureaucracies further de-legitimize the state towards its citizens and reinforce the inherited broken state-society linkages. With this regard, two building blocks of reform are needed: first, fixing state institutions in having professional and meritocratic recruited civil servants, judges and police forces as well as effective separation of power for state integrity is crucial. Second, restoring parties’ incentives in being more programmatic and in serving better the citizens’ need, by reforming political parties becomes as indispensable. Against this background, in Albania and in the rest of the region, the EU accession process is having a high pressure on building such impartial and less corrupt state institutions, and only few reforms tackle political parties’ structure with voters. Because parties can as easily reform state institutions and as well as easily backslide such reforms, increasing pressure on reforming parties’ organization is as crucial and necessary condition for state consolidation to be sustainable, as for democracy to work. While parties’ pluralism has been consolidated through alternation of power, democratic representation restoring such citizens’ trust in their own state and parties, through reforms of political parties, is the hardest challenge for the future ahead.

Pre-electoral context: divided we stand
Albania headed towards election on the 25th of June, after a 4-year government coalition formed by the centre-left Socialist Party (SP) and the smaller centre-left Socialist Party for Integration (SMI). While elections were scheduled initially for 18th of June, a 3-month political stalemate between the Democratic Party (DP) in Opposition and the (SP) led-government halted crucial judicial reforms[1] the country had to pass in order to open EU accession talks. The crisis culminated in the DP’ s walkout of parliament, where DP pitched a tent in front of the Prime Minister’s office alleging the government, particularly SMI, to be involved in multiple criminal activities and preparing widespread electoral fraud.[2] The crisis escalated with the opposition party refusal to participate in the parliamentary elections unless certain conditions were fulfilled.[3] The SP-led government rejected these demands and claimed that the DP did not want to participate in elections due to their lack of popular support.[4] However, after several warnings from international observers, the boycott of DP ended on the 18th of June, with a cross-party agreement reached between Prime Minister Edi Rama of the Socialist Party and main opposition Democratic Party leader Lulzim Basha. This accord proved crucial to pave the way to elections. On the one hand, the agreement[5] allowed the DP to appoint several key government positions in six ministries and in the position of deputy prime minister, ombudsman and central electoral commission, in order to observe and maintain a good conduct of free and fair elections. On the other hand, it allowed the SP to push the several legislative proposals[6] related among others to a thorough vetting of election candidates, as the last key criteria to be fulfilled before opening EU negotiation talks.

Elections: Together we rule, but with a democratic deficit
Previous elections in the country have been overshadowed by fraud and even violence, but this time, things seemed to be different. As confirmed in a statement from the European and External Actions Service High Representative Federica Mogherini, elections were held in a ‘calm and orderly manner’, despite some alleged cases of vote-buying and possible intimidation by groups of party activists and irregularities in procedures of counting. For the first time, this election has led to the most dramatic collapse in support for the Democratic Party, since Albania’s transition to communism. For the first time, many Albanians decided not to vote as well. With a turnout of just 45%, the lowest since 1992, citizens have given the Socialist Prime Minister Edi Rama and its EU agenda green light with an outright majority in parliamentary elections. With more than 80% of the votes counted the SP has captured this Sunday, 48% of the vote compared with 30% for the DP headed by Lulzim Basha. The result of Sunday’s election would mean the Socialists control 74 seats in the 140 members’ parliament against 43 for the Democratic and 19 for the Movement for Socialist Integration (LSI) under president-elect Ilir Meta. The SP-led government has taken the lead on such reforms already in 2013 under the effective leadership of Prime Minister Edi Rama and the slogan “Rilindja Kombetare” (Albanian National Awakening). The SP-led government under the effective leadership of Prime Minister Edi Rama has shown good progress in EU prompted reforms, and both willingness to cooperate with opposition, at an important stage of Albania’s EU accession.[7]

Reforms ahead: which problems can challenge democratic representation in Albania?
Albania is currently in the process of starting EU negotiations, which are planned by the end of this year. Albanians are the most pro- EU citizens in Western Balkans (89% of them being pro EU). These elections show that Albanians signal green light to their government, to further pursue their their dream in joining the EU and the future government need to sustain this path. However, disengaged from politics with lowest record of voters’ turnout, these elections also hint to citizens’ need of better representation of their concerns through political parties. In order to restore the representativeness of citizens in the current party system: three areas of reform remain crucial in order to establish democratic representation: (1) overcome polarized and confrontational politics, (2) reform political parties’ organization and (3) develop more programmatic political competition.

First, parties should further maintain their consensual approach, to pass future constitutional changes needed in the EU integration process. The pre-electoral consensus of both political parties signals a reversal from previous trend of polarised and de-stabilising politics at an important stage of Albania’s EU accession. Albanian politics has been one of highly polarized political camps between the two main parties, the Socialist Party and the Democratic party. Since transition from communism to democracy, both a high fragmentation of party system and a polarization of political competition has been destabilizing for political reforms. Hence, in order to push forward further constitutional changes in the road to EU a further cooperation between current government and opposition will prove crucial.

Second, parties’ should develop better strategies of programmatic orientation and reflect the socio-economic interests of voters. The party system polarisation in Albania is less based on ideological difference, as parties are almost indistinguishable programmatically.[8] Rather opposition parties on the left or right, challenge the incumbent based either on scandals of corruption or mal-performance in various key areas of EU reforms, but less on deliverability on policies of education, health and economy to citizens. A current snapshot of this election in the discrepancy between what concerns citizens’ and what politicians strategically raise as electoral issues, serves to illustrate this point. Indeed, in the polls[9], citizens’ concerns are around unemployment (67%), corruption (36%), salary and pension (34%) and health (23,4 %). However, those stand in contrast to the ‘issues’ political parties raised during campaigning that can be summarised as: (1) the fight against the drug and cannabis, (2) reform of judiciary (3) corruption and (4) the right fiscal measures and packages on taxes and employment. Parties seem to respond more to EU demands, and less to inform citizens’ on what policies they are offering to address their concerns and how do parties position themselves differently. Therefore, the left -right distinction is less programmatically anchored and reflects less voters’ socio-economic cleavages.[10] The current vote last Sunday went rather to the personal credibility of the leader leading the country into EU, rather than in choosing the incumbent that delivers best to the citizens. As a result, parties’ have an informative role during campaigning that remains to be better fulfilled programmatically by restoring the links with voters on policies.

Third, party organizations are in deep need of reform in Albania, besides state reforms. The current government has done good progress in prioritizing administrative state, judicial reforms and as well some reforms related to political parties. A ’decriminalization law’ for political and public representatives has just been passed, resulting in some former delegates and others withdrawing their candidacies because they were suspected of various crimes or had a number of previous convictions. As well further legislative pieces related to higher transparency on parties’ political finance have been adopted too. However, more needs to be done in establishing a higher democratization of internal parties’ organizations. In Albania, parties are still in need of creating transparent and accountable organizations with democratic rules and procedures, a clear constituency of party activists, and clear and cohesive career structures within the party organization for young elites to bring in new impetus. Hence, without reformed political parties with more programmatic ways of doing politics, not much on the incentives side will maintain sustainably EU promoted state reforms.

In Albania, as in the rest of Western Balkans, many institutions and formal laws have already been adopted in the transition process, but because such laws are not self-reinforcing, a political constituency that protects those laws is needed. For example, although the past civil service law 1999 in Albania legally established the right principles of meritocracy, parties found alternative channels to appoint based on political loyalty rather than meritocracy. Hence, in order to maintain state integrity and impartial institutions, the logic of doing politics needs to be reversed in future: from parties using the state to survive electorally and organizationally, and being responsive only to EU demands, to parties having autonomous organization and being representatives of citizens. Only with such political parties, reforms of establishing impartial state institutions to best deliver to citizens is possible. Albania, as the second poorest economy in Europe, not only needs a future in the EU, by restoring its past and overcoming its isolation inherited from the communist regime; it also needs democratic representation that restores the broken relationship of the citizens to their own state admirations and improve their living standards.

Footnotes:
[1] Based on Economist Intelligence Unit 2017, this is because the legislature has been entrusted with electing a panel of experts to vet the country’s judges and prosecutors in a bid to root out corruption. Apart from holding a free and fair election, the launch of the vetting process is the last remaining condition that Albania needs to meet before it can start accession talks with the EU.
[2] OSCE (2017) Election Observation Mission Page: 4 Republic of Albania, Parliamentary Elections, 25 June 2017 Interim Report (9 – 31 May 2017)
[3] The Democratic Party asked for the resignation of the prime minister, the formation of a technical government, and the use of electronic voting. Unless such demands were not met, they refused to participate in the up-coming elections.
[4] OSCE (2017) Election Observation Mission Page: 4 Republic of Albania, Parliamentary Elections, 25 June 2017 , Interim Report (9 – 31 May 2017)
[5] While the content of this accord was not made transparent to the public, the proposal named the “McAllister Plus” , was accepted later on
[6] Other legislative pieces were more transparency in the financing of political parties and tougher penalties for election-related offences.
[7] The European Union (EU) accession process has required co-operation between the government and the opposition in several key areas in order to adopt legislation, including on judicial reform, on preventing people with criminal convictions from holding public offices, as well as on electoral reform.
[8] Kajsiu, B. (2010): Down with politics! The crisis of representation in Post-Communist Albania , East European Politics & Societies 24(2):229-253
[9] IPR Marketing Ora News, Survey, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E1iJ9V16-3E&t=3901s [accessed (20.06.2017)].
[10] Kajsiu, B. (2010) Down with politics! The crisis of representation in Post-Communist Albania , East European Politics & Societies 24(2):229-253

Photo source: https://www.ft.com/content/a15f9b5a-51ab-11e7-bfb8-997009366969