Albania has voted – will it be a new momentum for its EU path?

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

By ignoring Albania’s progress, the EU risks missing its historic window of opportunity, writes Akri Çipa. [Malton Dibra/EPA/EFE]

Pressed by major challenges such as endemic corruption, brain drain and economic hurdles, Albania needs a strong and stable political establishment that will push for an ambitious reform agenda. The latest elections provide hope, but much work lies ahead, write Tobias Rüttershoff and Teona Lavrelashvili.

Dr Tobias Rüttershoff is the head of Konrad Adenauer Stiftung Office in Albania; Teona Lavrelashvili is a project manager of European Party Monitor, KU Leuven

The Albanian parliamentary elections of 25 April raised high hopes for the country’s progress towards democratisation and EU accession. They were the first elections held under the new electoral law, agreed upon by the ruling party and the opposition on 5 June.

The elections were also severely scrutinised by the EU, which has listed the adoption and implementation of the electoral reform in its 15 points conditions for the opening of Albania’s accession talks.

After two years of the opposition boycotting the parliament and refusing to participate in the 2019 local elections, these elections were a window of opportunity for the political actors to reset the way of doing politics as high polarization and mistrust have been dangerously embedded in the Albanian party system over the past decades.

With the hope to topple Prime Minister Edi Rama’s Socialist Party, the main opposition Democratic Party (DP) and smaller leftist party Socialist Movement for Integration (LSI) put their ideological differences aside and formed a strategic alliance.

However, the results did not meet their expectations. Rama won a third mandate, effectively becoming the first prime minister of Albania since the end of communism to have three consecutive mandates.

While the DP and the smaller parties of the “Alliance for Change”, which ran on a joint list, managed to win 59 seats, thereby gaining 13 seats to the previous election, the LSI, the party of the incumbent President Ilir Meta, suffered a significant loss, gaining only four mandates, 15 less compared to the previous elections.

Whether or not these elections will fulfil the EU’s conditions, will largely depend on the political actors’ willingness at the domestic level to fully investigate and adequately react to the irregularities. Alas, these irregularities were quite significant.

Although the elections were generally well organized (also noted by the OSCE/ODHIR), serious allegations of vote-buying, voter coercion, the misuse of state funds, etc., cast a dark shadow over them.

We have seen alarming incidents in the week before the election, including the fatal shooting in Elbasan, and the misuse of personal data from over 900,000 citizens of Tirana. Another problem with the election process itself was the high number of invalid votes.

This suggests that the format of the ballot papers with numbers instead of the candidates’ names may have confused many voters.

Moreover, unlike most other countries in the region, the Albanian diaspora which accounts for 1.8 million and whose remittances are believed to generate nearly 10% of the country’s 2020 GDP, was deprived of the opportunity to cast a vote. These regrettable events show that more work on electoral and other reforms is required.

The election allegations are not yet over. The opposition continues to denounce the government for misusing the state funds in areas affected by the November 2019 earthquake, including the cash payments and the “legalisation” or better valuation of property just before the elections.

Furthermore, some individuals named in previous criminal proceedings have been re-elected to parliament on the list of Rama´s Socialist Party, although the prosecution and sentencing of these crimes are one of the conditions before the EU starts opening its accession clusters.

On a relatively positive note, Election Day itself was calm with only a few incidents.

Participation of the various political parties contributed to a pluralist political environment. The citizens also demonstrated that they care about their country’s future through a relatively high turnout.

This was officially 48%, yet the electoral list included all Albanians over 18. If only considering the resident Albanians, the turnout goes up to around 74%!

Lastly, it is encouraging that some of the new measures in the electoral law, such as the biometric identification and the trial run of electronic voting in one area of Tirana, have proven successful.

Now, much work lies ahead for Albania. Against the backdrop of the weak political institutions and major challenges such as endemic corruption, brain drain and economic hurdles, Albania needs a strong and stable political establishment that will push for an ambitious reform agenda.

Considering the previous boycott of the parliament, it is good news that DP’s leader Lulzim Basha has stated that the party will enter parliament. Indeed, participation in democratic institutions is the only way ahead to hold the government accountable and avoid state capture.

Many pressing issues require political actors’ constructive cooperation. First, aside from criminal investigations, the allegations of electoral fraud need to be discussed in parliament.

Second, these discussions should lead to a meaningful review and changes in the electoral law (for instance, the electronic voting system, which worked quite well in the test area, needs to be implemented nationwide).

Third, the DP need to push for further reforms, such as the administrative law and the law on decriminalization, which are also part of the EU conditions.

The Democratic Party, as the strongest opposition force, might also be pressed to consider internal party reforms.

The election outcome suggests that the party should conduct a review of its election campaign as well as previous political decisions and formulate a strategy for the years ahead. The party needs to look forward and consider opening its door to new faces and the younger generation that will ultimately bring fresh ideas and energy.

Besides a strong opposition, the role of proactive civil society and independent media will be of paramount importance for Albania’s democratisation and EU path.

Civil society should be empowered and included in designing the national action plans on reforming the rule of law. The worrying trend of non-professionalization and lack of pluralism in media ownership remains of great concern.

Therefore, it will be indispensable that the Albanian political parties, with the help of the international community, support the necessary mechanism to ensure media freedom.

These elections provided Albanians with a glimpse into a better future. Nevertheless, it is important that the irregularities are investigated and prosecuted.

All political actor should see this as a new momentum to join forces, move beyond the zero-sum game and start building on consensus-oriented politics.

This will be a key in bringing Albania closer to the EU accession, but most importantly, in establishing a solid foundation for the country’s genuine democratisation and transformation.

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