Summer is a lazy political season in Tirana. Members of parliament take their long summer vacations. Other state institutions are mostly dormant while their administrators go in search of refreshing shelter, away from the stifling heat of Albania’s capital city. But there is somebody who has decided to take full advantage of this temporarily inactive political field. He is the newly elected mayor of Tirana, Erion Veliaj.
Veliaj won the local election of June 21, 2015 in Albania’s biggest and most important municipality. He took possession of the office that had previously been held for four years by his political opponent, the chairman of the Democratic Party (DP), Lulzim Basha. Thirtyfive-year-old Veliaj left his ministerial position in the coalition government to represent the Socialist Party (SP) in the race for Tirana; he won at a canter, securing around 50 thousand more votes than his main rival, the well-known doctor and DP candidate, Halim Kosova.
Veliaj assumed the mayor’s office on July 30, starting off with a symbolic gesture. He appointed somebody to fix the clock standing at the top of Tirana’s monumental ‘clock tower’ building. “Can’t have a city stuck in time,” he wrote on his Twitter account afterwards.
In his first days as mayor, Veliaj has seemed to be constantly moving around the city and drawing a lot of media attention along the way. Some television channels report on at least three of his activities and engagements each day. On social media, you can see pictures of him taking the bus to work or randomly walking and inspecting the streets of the Albanian capital.
Even so, political opponents and some journalists do not feel particularly enthusiastic about the new mayor being followed by TV cameras, as he inspects Tirana’s affairs. Critics constantly accuse him of being superficial and claim that he is more interested in getting media attention than in taking care of the citizens’ problems.
But Veliaj seems to have no doubts about the way he has chosen to run the city. “I was elected to administer this city and to do so I have to be in the field every day, to witness the problems in the city for myself,” he told Kosovo 2.0. “I want to improve the transportation system in Tirana and I take the bus to witness these problem. I don’t see any ‘show’ in it.”
The mayor also implies that his intention is not to wander the streets of Tirana, but to identify the real-life problems that pedestrians face while walking the city. He says that he is not concerned about people’s perceptions of what he has started to do, as long as he is convinced that this is “what a mayor has to do.”
During his election campaign, Veliaj ran on a platform that contained 12 Tirana construction projects at its core. He promised to build two new university campuses within the next four years and a multifunctional center for students. The creation of an integrated Tirana park — bringing together two existing parks and linking them to a new Olympic Park — was another of the key projects that Veliaj presented during his campaign, as was the construction of a new Boulevard of Tirana, which will create new green spaces in the city. He also promised multiple measures for easing Tirana’s road traffic problems and said that the ‘Piramida’ — a communist era pyramid building in the heart of the city — will soon be transformed into a cultural center, surrounded by a park.
It is evident that he has a lot of work to do. In this new position, Veliaj has to oversee a territory that is 25 times bigger than the one that his predecessor, Lulzim Basha administered. Administrative and territorial reform, approved by the Albanian Parliament in July 2014, has reduced the total number of local government units across the country from around 400 to just 61. As a result of this reform, Veliaj has to manage an additional 13 communes, in addition to the urban territory of the capital city. He has already chosen 24 administrators who will serve as his aides and delegates in every unit of Tirana. However the vast size of this newly reformed territory seems set to bring a lot of challenges for the new mayor.
The former deputy mayor of Tirana, Nevila Xhindi, told Kosovo 2.0 that Tirana is no longer an urban territory as the administrative boundary changes have added rural areas to the capital’s jurisdiction, bringing new priorities onto the mayor’s desk. “Merging the two types of environments — urban and rural — is in my opinion the biggest challenge that Veliaj will face,” she said. “The way in which he deals with this big issue will define other dynamics in the administration of Tirana.”
The mayor himself is well aware of the administrative challenges of this new territory. He says that one of the primary issues that he has to deal with is the unification of public transportation in Tirana, providing better connections between the city and the newly added rural areas. “There are semi-urban areas like Kashari or Farka, which have big populations, but they don’t have any public transportation,” Veliaj explained. “To resolve this problem, we have to create new transportation lines.”
Tirana’s public transportation currently consists solely of buses which are operated through a public-private partnership. Veliaj is convinced that if raising service quality is a central focus when this partnership is renewed, there will be major improvements in public transport, including a faster service. “We are also going to reopen the bus lanes in the city,” he claimed. “During the past four years, these dedicated lanes were destroyed.”
Veliaj believes that before thinking of other ways of diversifying Tirana’s public transportation, the municipality should maximize the functionality of the existing system. Knowing that heavy traffic is one of the city’s biggest problems, during his campaign he committed to finishing the ongoing work on three important ring roads, with the aim of making the traffic flow more quickly. Freeing the city sidewalks from unauthorised vendors and bar chairs in order to create more space for pedestrians, and creating accessible sidewalks and crossings for disabled people, are other promises that Veliaj made on the campaign trail.
As the former Minister of Social Welfare and Youth, Veliaj directed the left wing coalition government’s efforts to create more jobs in Albania; one of the country’s most pressing issues. Based on official documents, the Albanian Institute of Statistics, estimates that the current unemployment rate in Albania stands at 17.3 percent. But when it comes to the country’s youth (those aged between 15 and 29 years old), unemployment soars to 34.1 percent. In reality, since not everyone who is unemployed is officially registered, these rates are likely to be even higher.
Veliaj admits that in his new position, his ability to deal with this severe problem will be limited. “Employment policies in Albania mostly fall under the jurisdiction of the central government,” he argued. “There are only a few measures that a municipality can undertake to raise the employment rate.”
Despite the limitations, Veliaj says that the municipality of Tirana will make the most of the few levers that it does have to create more employment opportunities. “We are going to open an employment office in the municipality, which will offer job negotiations,” he said. “A local fund that aims to encourage more employment possibilities will be established and used to subsidise businesses that are going to create jobs.” Within his four year mandate as mayor, he also intends to create a ‘business incubator’ to provide free support facilities for youth start-ups.
Besides these small initiatives, Veliaj has to deal with a vast workload. He says that nowadays, Tirana has not a few but “3,000 problems.” During his election campaign, a group of youngsters with their smartphones traveled all over Tirana identifying what they felt was going wrong. “We have mapped all of these problems,” said Veliaj. “We consider them 3,000 opportunities for making this city more livable.”
But ultimate success in dealing with these problems will not come about just because he and his administration have good intentions. Veliaj also has to deal with the city council, where 19 out of 61 members are representatives of opposition parties.
Opposition councillors have demanded that Veliaj takes his commitments for Tirana seriously and have urged him to start the real work as soon as possible. One issue that they have highlighted as an immediate priority is a procedure that has already been dragging on for a year: the allocation of social housing to 200 of the city’s most vulnerable families. Although these families have been confirmed as the recipients of the available social housing, a lack of consensus during the previous administration between ruling and opposition councillors has blocked the implementation. In essence, petty political wranglings have prevented vulnerable families from moving into their promised homes. Veliaj has made a statement of intent by including the issue on the agenda of the first city council meeting which will be held on August 13.
Leonard Olli, leader of the opposition parties’ councillors in the Tirana city council, says that his group is going to collaborate with the new mayor for the sake of the city’s citizens. “Our group will do everything that is possible to bring more social, economic and cultural benefits to the citizens of Tirana,” he told Kosovo 2.0. “This concept is a strong drive for us to collaborate.”
In return for the opposition’s cooperation, Olli hopes that Veliaj will be an objective administrator during his tenure as Tirana’s mayor and won’t simply act as Prime Minister Edi Rama’s puppet. “I hope that Veliaj will be able to detach himself from Rama’s influence,” he said. “In this way, he can really be a successful administrator for all of Tirana’s citizens.”
Veliaj’s first council meeting is set to take place today, the first one since the elections. The eyes of the capital’s citizens will be upon him over the coming days, months and years, waiting to see if he can make good his promises and address Tirana’s seemingly bottomless list of problems.K