Albania: The good news and the bad news – by Dimitar Bechev

Is the glass half-full or half-empty? This is the question vexing many after Albania’s general elections.

Will Albania descend into chaos as Macedonia did?

The good news

There is no doubt a positive side. The very fact that the vote did take place on Sunday and produced a clear outcome is no trivial matter. Prime Minister Edi Rama and his Socialists won nearly 50 percent of the vote, many laps ahead of the opposition Democrat Party (PD).

Mere weeks ago, Western dignitaries, including German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel, were warning that Albania could descend into chaos. PD had walked out from the parliament, rallied supporters on the streets and threatened to boycott the elections. Rama’s coalition with the Socialist Movement for Integration (LSI), his partner since 2013, had gone down the drain too. Albania appeared to be on the cusp of a crisis as acute as the one in Macedonia next-door.

The country already has a long record of disputed elections amid bitter political polarisation. In 2009, the Socialists, then in opposition, refused to acknowledge PD’s win and boycotted the parliament for more than two years. Two years later, Edi Rama controversially lost the mayorship of Tirana to Lulzim Basha, currently the PD leader, by a razor-thin margin of just 93 votes. Now, however, tables have turned. Having lost power in 2013, the PD has to deal with a system skewed in favour of the party in charge of the government.

Rama once stood as the underdog: a former artist, full of fresh energy, charming audiences at home and abroad. Against him was Sali Berisha, a veteran politico, whose sole cause seemed to be retaining power at any cost. A Goliath to Rama’s David. These days, Berisha is gone into retirement, his protege Lulzim Basha is in the doldrums, LSI is no longer the kingmaker, and it is Rama calling the shots – for better or worse. The emasculated opposition in parliament poses a problem. PD is in disarray after Basha’s lacklustre leadership. While Ilir Meta, the LSI leader, did manage to increase the size of the party caucus, his cohort of 19-23-year-old parliamentarians won’t be a formidable force to reckon with.

The good news is that Rama has a chance to form a stable government and push forward with key reforms, such as overhauling the judiciary as required by the European Union for launching membership talks. The political crisis in the first half of the year coupled with the PD parliamentary boycott left no space for serious work on that front.

OPINION: What is happening in Macedonia?

Now that the elections are done, Rama can tone down his nationalist rhetoric. The so-called “Tirana Platform” he fathered along with the Albanian parties in Macedonia only served to pour oil in the turbulence – shaking up the politics in the neighbouring country. The Macedonian crisis has now abated, with a transfer of power to a coalition led by Socialist leader Zoran Zaev which includes the principal Macedonian Albanian players, so Rama can pursue his political fortunes elsewhere – preferably closer to home.

The bad news

Albania has been part of NATO since 2009 and is now nearing accession talks with the EU. And yet, holding orderly elections appears to be still a major challenge. It is not at the same place where popular riots led to an utter collapse of state institutions in 1997 and an international intervention. And unlike its post-Yugoslav neighbours, Albania is not fragmented along ethnic lines; confessional divisions have, at best, a minor impact on politics.

Yet building a stable, democratic regime remains an elusive goal. Weak institutions are prone to political capture and breed an atmosphere of distrust. The PD opted for obstructive tactics because it doubted that Rama would play fair at the ballot box.

After a term in government, the Socialists are marred by corruption and there are serious allegations of links to organised crime. A recent scandal involved allegations of links to mobsters smuggling cannabis to neighbouring Greece.

Power has been used against opponents. For instance, in February, police pressed charges against Basha for inciting violence, which could result in him serving up to three years in prison. Monitors of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) reported widespread vote buying on election day, among other irregularities.

The fact that the PD itself was using similar dirty tricks before 2013 only testifies to the fact that the problem is systemic, rather than stemming from larger-than-life personalities like Berisha, Rama, or Meta, who is about to take over as president at the end of July. They all have their skeletons in the closet but, as elsewhere, the issue is what checks and balances there are to curb the predatory instincts of political operators.

The EU talks

The EU is clearly part of the answer to the Albanian chronic political crisis. Rama and Basha would not have been able to reach a compromise on the elections, without EU intervention. Under the agreement that was reached, the polls took place a week later than the original date, 18 June. That decision backfired on Basha as it pushed down the turnout to record-low levels. The heatwave and Ramadan festivities played a role, too.

The Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn and Foreign and Security Policy Chief Federica Mogherini did their job as mediators, as did US Deputy Assistant Secretary Hoyt Brian Yee, the US man for the Balkans. Remarkably, they had to juggle the Macedonia drama at the same time.

But now the ball is in Rama’s court. He can use his new strength to pass the judicial reforms and even preside over the launch of accession negotiations with the EU. Whether such changes actually lead to investigations and sentences against high-profile politicians and business people, especially affiliated with the governing party, is another matter.

As we have seen elsewhere in the Western Balkans, not least in Montenegro and Serbia, which are already in membership talks with the EU, legislative reforms are a necessary but not a sufficient condition for substantive change in governance. Rama’s success can definitely provide stability, that much is certain. But, as we know, in the Balkans “stability” is tantamount to all the evils Brussels is urging the local countries to combat.

Dimitar Bechev is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and Research Fellow at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill. He was formerly senior policy fellow and head of Sofia Office at the European Council on Foreign Relations and lecturer at the University of Oxford. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

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