Albania’s post-election outlook: fragile bipolarity and state seizure
By Marcus How
On April 25, Albania held elections for its unicameral parliamentary chamber, which has 140 seats. The distribution of the vote for the parties that obtained representation is as follows:
– Decision: Socialist Party (PS) – 48.6% of the vote, 74 seats (-0)
– Opposition: Democratic Party (PD) – 39.5%, 59 seats (+13)
– Opposition: Socialist Movement for Integration (LSI) – 6.8%, 4 seats (-15)
– Opposition: Social Democratic Party (PSD) – 2.25%, 3 seats (+2)
The result reinforces the position of the government of Prime Minister Edi Rama, which won its third consecutive term while maintaining the absolute majority it obtained in 2017. This should be further strengthened by the PSD, which won two seats. additional, but the United States is blacklisted. Leader Tom Doshi immediately resigned his mandate in order to facilitate cooperation with the PS.
Meanwhile, the two main opposition blocs underperformed: although Lulzim Basha’s PD won 13 more seats, these were at the expense of President Ilir Meta’s LSI, with whom PD had to ally in order to form a majority in power which could oust the PS. Nonetheless, the PD consolidated its position as the only electorally competitive opposition party.
More generally, the result marks a return to the bipartisan landscape which has been the norm in Albania since 1989. However, it is not an indicator of political stability, which shows that the Albanian elections are still effectively opposed by two competing clientelisms.
After the 2013 elections, the PS formed a government coalition with the LSI, thereby removing PD from his post, which he had held for eight years. Under the leadership of Edi Rama, the PS simulated a transformation of the post-communist successor of the Party of Labor of Albania into a modern center-left force with a progressive program. The transition to membership of the European Union is an essential aspiration, with the institutional and liberalizing reforms that it will entail. Constitutional reforms, including of the judiciary, were adopted as a result.
The Rama government’s efforts have borne fruit, with formal EU membership negotiations kicking off in 2020, despite ongoing delays due to skepticism from some member states such as the Netherlands about the rule of law. These concerns are undoubtedly motivated by cynical motives, such as the posture of Member States towards the national public; but they are not without justification.
Imitation and simulation: a new system
Indeed, like some of its regional peers in Central-Eastern and South-Eastern Europe (CESEE), Albania has moved to an institutional model that mimics European standards on paper while simulating practices, denying the
centralization of power for the benefit of acquired private interests. It does not necessarily manifest itself clearly. Many of the reforms adopted by the Rama government are positive; but they were either accompanied by amendments or provided for loopholes that could be exploited.
The election serves as a case study in this regard. The poll was organized under a new electoral law, establishing on a district basis partially open lists from which voters can choose preferred candidates. The minimum threshold for parliamentary representation has been lowered from 3% at the regional level to 1% at the national level, theoretically facilitating greater pluralism. These reforms negotiated by the EU were to restore confidence in the integrity of the electoral system, prompting the return of the PD and LSI to parliament, which they boycotted in 2019.
It is not known whether the opposition will accept the result, but the conclusion of the OSCE and the Council of Europe is that the election was free in addition to being well organized. However, he did not spare criticism of shoddy speech, aggressive rhetoric and vote-buying – as well as the structural advantages the PS enjoys.
Indeed, the amendments sponsored by PS – the passage of which has been criticized by the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe “Extremely rushed” – limited the formation of pre-election coalitions to single rather than joint lists, forcing parties seeking alliances to find themselves politically complicated to accept parity with each other. While not a fundamental change, it gave the PS a marginal advantage, while inhibiting small parties as well as the PD / LSI alliance.
PS has snowballed such fringe benefits, many of which are of non-liberal flavor. For example, the PS benefited from State resources, with leaks a database revealing that thousands of party officials monitor voters, noting their place of work and political preferences. And although a Anti-defamation law online article targeting is currently on ice, media comments were largely uncritical, reflecting a cautious editorial policy. Large parties are also favored by regulations on media coverage of election campaigns.
More generally, sometimes by accident, sometimes by design, the PS was able to benefit from the structurally weak checks and balances of Albania. Due to the PD and LSI boycott of the electoral system, the PS took control of virtually all city councils in the 2019 local elections – which, given that the parliament is not matched by an upper house and elects also the president, neutralized admittedly ineffective).
Business as usual
By re-establishing the fragile bipolarity of the Albanian political landscape, the same institutional practices are very likely to endure during the new legislature.
They are also manifested in the economy insofar as they have effectively constituted the central part of the PS campaign: namely, the development of infrastructure, including two new airports and two ports by 2025, as well as a line of railway between Tirana and Durres, and improvement of road connectivity at national and cross-border level.
PS has relied on public-private partnerships (PPP) and concessions for such projects, in addition to offering bonuses of up to 10% for unsolicited offers. The conditions governing the projects are usually adopted through special laws, preventing effective control: for example, the law on the construction of the Vlora airport was adopted. within 13 days of its drafting, indicating insufficient consultations.
Other examples of non-competitive tenders include the Milot-Balldre highway, which is expected to be one of the Very expensive road constructions per kilometer in Europe, as well as Rruga e Arbit Highway. Besides transport, other sectors in which such practices are endemic are energy, defense, health and waste management. This has an impact on the commercial viability of the projects, the fallout being ultimately borne by the state budget.
Such patronage forms an important part of the political economy in Albania and is served by inadequate judicial oversight, tailor-made laws and opaque tenders. These practices have so far survived – or even evolved on the back – of the EU-mandated reforms that have been enacted. The review of judges that began in 2016 has been essential in this regard, generating a large backlog of cases at all levels of the justice system – from criminal cases to constitutional cases.
Transparency International (TI) and the Institute for Democracy and Mediation (IDM) described this state of institutional capture in a report released in March. These practices are not the only domain of the PS. TI / IDM noted that attempts to capture the state through centralized corruption began during PD’s 2005-2013 tenure, with a few major criminal cases pending from that time.
In this sense, the anti-corruption platform on which Lulzim Basha campaigned was not convincing – not least because he was a protégé of the great PD and former Prime Minister Sali Berisha, variously leading the foreign ministries, the ‘Interior and Public Works. President Ilir Meta – whose LSI is actually a personalist vehicle – struck a similar tone, although he resigned his post as Deputy Prime Minister in 2012 on charges of corruption of which he was. controversial.
The elections maintained the status quo but the political consensus is fragile. The campaign was characterized by high levels of polarization which resulted in isolated cases of politically motivated violence, one of which was fatal. Lulzim Basha had previously suggested that PD might not accept defeat. Although at the time of writing, Basha has agreed to dialogue with Prime Minister Rama, it is highly likely that the PD will choose to continue their boycott of parliament and mobilize the protests. Violence of the type that Albania experienced during its civil conflict in 1997 is highly unlikely, but the disengagement of key institutions, if continued, is likely to have a destabilizing effect.
Nonetheless, the Rama government is likely to fend for itself. Foreign investors seem to be able to coexist with clientelist patterns: between 2008-2019, when these practices began to flourish, influx Foreign direct investment (FDI) increased on average by about 1.1 billion dollars per year, against 200 million dollars over the period 1996-2007. Inward stocks of FDI also amount to 8.8 billion USD in 2019, compared to 3.2 billion USD in 2010. Albania lags behind its regional counterpart, Serbia, but its performance in FDI is reasonable and stimulate development.
Structural issues such as secular population decline weigh on the long-term outlook. Where Serbia, Montenegro and North Macedonia have experienced some slowdown in the ‘brain drain’, that from Albania continues unabated, with highly skilled workers accounting for 40% of total net emigrants between 2012- 2019. And in the midst of a moderate regional recovery from the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, it won’t be enough to get confused.
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Marcus How is Head of Research and Analysis at ViennEast Consulting, a Vienna-based investment risk consultancy specializing in CESEE.