By Alba Brojka (Independent expert)
Expectations were high for the general elections in Albania on 25th of April, as were the stakes. Albanian citizens were to decide who would fill the 140 seats in their Parliament while in the existing term 75 were held by the Socialist Party, a comfortable majority. The country’s politics have traditionally been dominated by two parties since the transition to democracy in 1991, the Democratic Party (DP) and the Socialist Party (SP). Recently, the political scene saw the strengthening of a third party, which had emerged – back in 2004 – from a break from the SP, the Socialist Movement for Integration (SMI). SMI played the role of the king maker, once forming a governing coalition with DP and later with SP. This election again, the three parties were the ones to dominate the campaign and get most of the votes from the citizens.
Voting polls closed at 19:00 with a relatively calm election day, with some statistics on participation already available in the afternoon. An increase in participation from the 2017 elections was noticed, as citizens seemed to be more aware of their voting power. The race was tight and many party supporters spent the nights sleepless, waiting next to counting centers. Ironically, both SP and DP key figures went on air late in the eve of election day, each claiming to have won. With the 73% of the votes being counted by the morning of 27th of April, the results stand at 73 of the seats being occupied by the SP and 59 by the DP and its coalition members. However, since there are already claims about irregularities in the counting process, it is expected that the final results will be announced several days later.
For many Albanians this elections are a breaking point. SP was asking for a third mandate to continue its strategic projects and had confidently ran alone. Whereas DP was running with an alliance of small right-wing parties, and with a pre-determined agreement to co-govern with SMI. Both DP and SMI were running on a ticket asking for power rotation and change. A handful of independent candidates were the true novelty of this elections. They represented the existential aspiration of the future of Albania against the established status quo since the transition to democracy in 1991.
Understanding Albanian politics is a complex task
Albania has gone through much political turmoil the past two years. The DP and SMI decided to give up from their parliamentary mandates in 2019 and ended up doing most of the opposition voice in the streets of the capital, Tirana. Apparently, they had their calculations quite wrong. Such a decision left the opposition without a voice in a key institution, reduced the scrutiny of decision making and left a free hand to the SP which already had 75 MPs. Being taken by the enthusiasm of street protests, DP and SMI even decided to boycott the June 2019 local elections. Since then, Albania has been in the hands of SP at the central and local level.
Much has been achieved under the SP government, like investments in key infrastructure projects, the digitalization of key public services, and the built-up of the institutions. However, much of the democratic standards have eroded. If there is one sentence to describe the SP government is that “it got things done in the easiest and fastest way. But that most of the time meant that citizens were not listened to.” As we all know, democracy is a slow process. Media was further alienated and in many cases there were attempts to hush critical voices. Civil society organizations and activists were victims of police violence or SLAPP, especially under the pandemic period when a dozen of arbitrary decisions were taken. Considering all this and the deteriorating economic situation, many Albanians saw this election as a chance for change, again being brought by a party not so different from SP.
After 8 years in power, many Albanians thought that it is time for a political rotation, but just for the sake of it. Both SP and DP have become parties without any clear ideological belonging. The SP has ironically agreed on many contested private-public partnerships, whereas the DP has largely promised increase of salaries and social welfare. Indeed, none of the parties in Albania has a clearly identified ideology to which it remains loyal to. Nonetheless, since citizens are being offered to choose only between DP or SP, there is little hope that whoever comes to power, Albania’s democracy problems will be solved any time soon.
What was on offer this time
The same old (mostly men) faces. The political scene was again dominated by the SP, DP and SMI. Nonetheless, there were a lot of new entries. Some of them were old politicians who had run with the big parties and decided to split and create their own, yet this category of candidates and political parties represent the old class of politicians who had tried for many years their luck in politics.
But finally, there was some innovation with some totally new political actors. A civic movement, the #Initiative, decided to run for this parliamentary election. There were also 5 independent candidates running on this election. Whereas three candidates ran through the newly established Self-Determination branch in Albania, a party originally founded in Kosovo and which won the recent snap elections there. Two more candidates were totally on their own. What is striking, is the running of a mine worker from a very remote area in Albania. The latter is unprecedented in the Albanian political scene. Unfortunately, the new political actors were campaigning on an uneven playing field. They had very few funding for campaigning, mostly depending on supporters’ donations; very little access to media; and had to convince citizens who have become accustomed with traditional parties. The new actors had also more incentives to work on their programs and propose concrete pieces of legislation. This is somehow a novelty, given that the existing parties only campaign based on promises.
In contrast to the new actors, the big parties maintained their divisive rhetoric focusing on promises while equaling the party image with the party leader. SP ran on two key topics, the reconstruction of homes after the deadly earthquake that hit Albania in November 2019, and the intensive vaccination process. In many cases this led to blurring the line between the government and the SP as a political party campaigning for elections. Whereas DP ran on a narrative of increasing salaries, reducing taxes and providing a more enabling environment for people and businesses. The key word for their campaign was change. Nonetheless, DP has proven itself of not being much of a change either, hence if citizens turned to DP this elections, they did so for the sake of power rotation.
This round of elections, gender equality was also one of the topics frequently touched upon. SP had long bragged for its gender balanced government, but one can easily argue that it is more about statistics than structural reforms towards gender equality. Many of women candidates in both camps, have been used as a token. Moreover they have also been portrayed within the traditional stereotypical light as sisters, mothers, caretakers or as supporters to the dominating man figure in the party. Many young people made it to the candidates’ list as well. Again, it is all about statistics and less about the content. Youth were yet again used as a décor in rallies, or as manpower for campaigns, but they had little space to provide their own comments. Minorities too felt little represented from the candidates’ list.
To much of activists’ frustration who have been denied protesting for more than a year, in light of the pandemic restrictions, both DP and SP organized rallies gathering thousands of citizens. Almost all parties have disregarded COVID19 rules. Additionally, no measures were taken by Central Election Committee to collect the vote of COVID positive patients, thus infringing a constitutional right of the citizens.
The way forward
As the results stand so far, we can expect the Socialist Party further consolidating its position with a third mandate, where one cannot really tell the difference between the party, the government or local government. The SMI will most likely have no resources to continue being the third more influential party in the country. Whereas DP as a party will need a substantial reform. In terms of political outcomes, it will most likely resume its protests and contest elections on the ground of irregularities. Hence, citizens might not be able to enjoy the spring days in the main boulevard of Tirana.
This round of general elections were again an illusion that all Albania’s democracy problems would be solved. The problem is there and is structural. As long as the political system will be dominated by the same old political actors who would do everything to tailor the system according to their preferences to maximize their votes, the citizens vote is also an illusion. Four more years with an SP government is an indication to less transparency and accountability where citizens and activists are attacked, and where the few independent media has poor access to information. The erosion of a junior democracy in Albania will continue as it did even prior to 25th of April.