Albania’s Election Escapades :: Balkan Insight

Democratic Party rally in Albania ahead of Sunday polls. Photo: Ivana Dervishi, BIRN

Albanians go to the polls on Sunday for parliamentary elections – the ninth national vote since political pluralism became legal in 1990.

The country has changed radically since the bleak days of one-party rule, when an unmarked ballot meant a vote for the Party of Labor. But the scars of totalitarianism run deep, and democracy remains an elusive goal.

Ballot stuffing and voter intimidation left with the pyramid schemes of the 1990s but the parties today use patronage and cash. To influence media, bank accounts have replaced batons.

As they have since 1990, the two main parties are vying for control – The Socialist Party, descendants of the Party of Labor, and the Democratic Party, the first opposition party after Communism fell. Both praise Europe, the market economy and the West’s fight against terrorism but they represent very different styles, sectors and business interests of the country.

In a marked shift, last month the Socialists and Democrats agreed to turn their backs on the country’s third party, the Socialist Movement for Integration, which has consistently played king-maker for both sides, profiting handsomely from its strategically oversized role. This year, both parties considered the price too high and hope to seize the crown on their own.

The Socialists and their incumbent prime minister, Edi Rama, are leading in the polls and enjoy support in Western capitals but their ability to win alone remains unclear.

The tension remains high, and only an EU/US-brokered deal last month ended a Democratic Party election boycott. Proper elections are essential for Albania’s European integration, the mediators said, as is political stability to counter what one US official called “RMI” – the Russian Malign Influence.

International election observers have already rung an alarm bell, stressing the failure to implement a host of earlier recommendations. One report bluntly listed the concerns: “voter and candidate registration, conduct of the campaign, potential vote-buying, pressure and abuse of administrative resources, media coverage, implementation of campaign finance rules, election day procedures, and resolution of complaints and appeals.”

International observers will probably nod their approval nevertheless, accepting the results while listing a litany of complaints. “Adequate and acceptable” is how observers described elections in 1997 and that low-standards approach has not changed.

Low turnout is likely, too. As Albanians showed in recent years by trying to move to Germany and other countries, they like to vote with their feet.

One positive result would be more women in parliament, up from the current 32 of 140. Under current law, at least 30 percent of each candidate list and one of the first three names on the list should be for women.

Other welcome news would be a government and legislature, whoever wins, that carry out the desperately needed and internationally backed package of judicial reforms to tackle corruption. As do the elections, the courts still suffer from the ghosts of Albania’s near and distant past.

The larger issue is the need for a clear and effective separation of powers and the construction of strong and independent institutions to constrain state power, enforce the law, and protect human rights. The standard here is not from whence Albania has come but where it should go.

Fred Abrahams is author of the book Modern Albania: From Dictatorship to Democracy in Europe that covers the fall of Communism and the turbulent transition after four decades of labor camps, thought police and one-party rule.

The opinions expressed in the comment section are those of the authors only and do not necessarily reflect the views of BIRN.