Election preview: Albania

Albania goes to the polls on Sunday for a parliamentary election that could spell trouble for the government of prime minister Edi Rama, seeking a third term in power.

At the last election, four years ago, Rama’s Socialist Party (centre-left) won 48.3% of the vote and 74 of the 140 seats – prior to that it had depended on a smaller, rival centre-left party, the Socialist Movement for Integration (LSI), for its majority. Its centre-right opponent, the Democratic Party, had 28.9% and 43 seats. The LSI won 14.3% and 19 seats, while the right-wing Party for Justice and Integration managed 4.8% and three seats.

Superficially, Albania looks like a democratic success story: the Democrats, in power for eight years, had grown corrupt and complacent; they were swept from office and replaced by a charismatic centre-left leader, pledged to democratic reform and European values, who convincingly won re-election four years later.

While there are elements of truth in this picture, the reality is somewhat different. The country is deeply permeated by organised crime, and Rama’s government is both corrupt and increasingly authoritarian. In a recent poll (reported by Balkan Insight) only 38% said they believed they could change the government through elections. The fatal shooting of a Socialist politician this week was an indication of the troubled environment.

As I’ve argued before, I think the European Union needs to take some of the responsibility for this situation. By repeatedly dashing the hopes of the western Balkan countries for EU membership, it has effectively removed much of the incentive for reform and allowed corruption to flourish. While of course crooked politicians are responsible for their own acts, a great deal more could be done to encourage them down a different track.

In opposition the Democrats (as often happens) have become much more keen on reform than they ever were in government. They and the LSI have entered into an alliance, and in May 2019 the opposition MPs walked out of parliament; they also boycotted local elections held later that year.

Rama’s position is not helped by the fact that Albania’s president, Ilir Meta, represents the LSI – he was chosen when it and the Socialists were still in coalition – and is now a determined enemy of the government, which he describes as a “kleptocratic regime”. He promises to resign if Rama is re-elected; since in that event he would clearly not be reappointed next year when his term expires, this would not be a major sacrifice.

It’s been a pretty good year for incumbents in most places, and Albania’s performance in the pandemic should be a positive for the government: its death toll is significantly less than most of its neighbors’. Nonetheless, the polls suggest that Rama is in trouble. Recent polling puts both the Socialists and the Democrats in the low to mid-40s; the LSI with another few per cent may be enough to put the opposition over the line. (Caveat, though, that conditions in Albania are probably not ideal for accurate polling.)

In the space of just over a year, three of eastern Europe’s authoritarian-leaning governments, in Slovakia, Montenegro and Bulgaria, have gone down to defeat. So far, Rama’s government seems rather less culpable than they were, but that may not be enough to stop it sharing the same fate.

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