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Albania’s crisis continues after controversial local elections

By - 03.07.2019

Few solutions in sight after opposition rejects poll.

Following the local elections in Albania on Sunday (June 30), it is still unclear if this latest act in Albania’s ongoing political crisis will serve as a denouement of the divisions of the last few months or simply an intermezzo that precedes the continuation of political deadlock. 

According to the Central Election Commission (CEC), 21.6 percent of eligible voters took part in the June 30 local elections, which were boycotted by the main opposition parties. However, the Democratic Party (PD) responded immediately by rejecting the official CEC figures, claiming that only 15 percent of citizens had participated in the voting process. 

In the days following the election, the CEC started to count the votes and published the results. After counting 5,043 ballot boxes — from 5,402 in total — it is clear that the coalition led by the Socialist Party (PS) of prime minister Edi Rama won, receiving 768,743 votes on a national scale.

With its two main competitors not in the race, PS won 60 out of 61 municipalities.

The victory was expected, given that leading opposition parties PD and Social Movement for Integration (LSI) boycotted the elections, with only PS and smaller opposition parties taking part in the process — in 31 out of 61 municipalities, mayoral candidates ran unopposed.

Bindja Demokratike, which is led by one of the former leading figures of PD, Astrit Patozi, got over 26,000 votes, “Mega” Party got around 3,300 votes, while independent candidates got almost 6,000 votes altogether.

With the election process concluded in the capital, PS candidate and current mayor of Tirana, Erion Veliaj, won a resounding victory with 94% of the vote share, or 152,000 votes; this equates to 8,000 votes less than in 2015 when he was a candidate for the PS-LSI coalition.

With its two main competitors not in the race, PS won 60 out of 61 municipalities in the country, including major cities such as Durrës, Shkodër, Korçë, Elbasan, Vlorë, Fier and Kukës.

The only municipality in which PS didn’t win was the Greek-majority municipality, Finiq, which was won by a “Mega” Party candidate.

Backdrop to the crisis

The current political crisis in Albania initially began with mass student protests in December 2018, when thousands of students took to the streets to demand a reduction in student fees following controversial changes to education policy

Although initially all three of the major political parties tried to use the protests to their advantage, very soon it became clear that the students, who weren’t aligned with any party, would expose these attempts. 

Although the student-led protests faded before dying out completely in early 2019, opposition parties PD and LSI saw a golden opportunity to politically capitalize what they perceived as an anti-Rama mood and momentum.

In February 2019, PD decided to burn the mandates of its 43 deputies in Albania’s parliament; despite opposition from PD, these seats were subsequently filled by former PD candidates who had been in line on the party’s election lists from the 2017 parliamentary election.

LSI supported the formal PD position to quit the parliament but decided not to follow suit. 

What followed was four months of continuous — and often violent — protests organized by the two opposition parties. They stated that they would not take part in the local elections that had been scheduled for June 30 while Prime Minister Rama was still in power, whereas Rama insisted that the election would be held with or without the participation of the opposition.

The fact that the Constitutional Court is currently dysfunctional has made for a situation in which there is no ultimate arbitrator for deadlocked issues.

On June 8, President of the Republic Ilir Meta, took the decision to annul the scheduled election on the basis that there could be no elections when two political camps were in conflict and that the conditions for free and fair elections were not in place; he instead decreed October 13 as the new date for the local elections. 

However, PS opposed the decision, saying that it would not withdraw from the June 30 election, and on June 13 the parliament voted through an advisory resolution rejecting the president’s decision. 

The fact that the Constitutional Court is currently dysfunctional — after seven out of its nine members resigned or were dismissed during a comprehensive vetting process of the entire judiciary — has made for a situation in which there is no ultimate arbitrator for deadlocked issues. 

To add to the political tensions, PS has launched an initiative for the dismissal of President Meta. The parliamentary Commission for Laws took the decision to form an ad hoc commission that will investigate whether or not the president violated the law by annulling the June 30 election date. This report will be voted on in parliament on Thursday, July 4.

Meanwhile, PS will need a two-thirds majority in the parliament, or 94 votes, to realize Meta’s dismissal — the resolution rejecting the president’s annulment of the June elections passed by a 100 vote majority.

Tensions were raised further last month after the publication by German newspaper Bild of a series of wiretapped conversations, in which high state officials and PS members are heard talking about buying votes in the 2017 general election. In one of these conversations, Rama is heard asking an official in Albania’s Interior Ministry if a third person had carried out a plan, which Bild suggests was referring to vote buying.

Post-elections response

Soon after the voting centers were closed, Rama appeared in a press conference to say that “the state” has been the winner in this election process, but that this does not mean that the door has been closed for the opposition, and that there is still will for dialogue.

“If they want political peace, they will have it. And peace can begin only by withdrawing, step by step, but clearly, from the attacks against Albania in foreign languages,” he said. “If they want an agreement for Albania, they will have it.”

Meanwhile, PD leader Lulzim Basha stated after the end of the election process that 85% of Albanians proved that they are against the Rama government. “June 30 showed that we cannot go on any longer with Edi Rama, and that we cannot hold free and honorable elections,” he said.

All this pandemonium has led to much speculation about how the political deadlock could be resolved.

Kosovar journalist and analyst Baton Haxhiu, who is seen as being close to the Albanian political scene and especially to Rama, stated after the election that the resolution would come in the form of a PS-PD coalition government, with an agreement to govern until summer 2020 and then to hold snap parliamentary elections. By then, Haxhiu believes the coalition would dismiss President Meta.

Xhelal Mziu, mayor of Kamzë, has already said that he would not leave his position to the newly elected PS mayor.

In a press conference two days after the election, Meta, who founded LSI before resigning to become president, responded to Rama with taunts and accusations, suggesting that the prime minister had an “underground agenda” to capture the state, but adding that he himself has a political solution. According to Meta, on October 13 Albania must simultaneously hold early local, parliamentary and presidential elections.

His wife and current leader of LSI, Monika Kryemadhi, said that on June 30 there were no elections, there were simply votes. She also spoke about a dilemma that has been raised by the whole process: Will incumbent mayors from opposition parties leave their positions at the end of their mandates despite not recognizing these local elections?

In a TV debate, Kryemadhi said that the newly-elected mayors would never get into office. “Are you aware of all the things that will happen before August 12?” she asked rhetorically, referring to the starting date of the mandates of the newly-elected mayors.

Xhelal Mziu, mayor of Kamzë, a PD stronghold, has already said after meeting with Basha that he would not leave his position to the newly elected PS mayor.

“The June 30 elections are illegal,” he said. “I will not leave my office for these elections. It is personal.”

Mayor of Shkodra Voltana Ademi, one of the PD figures most critical of Rama, also would not rule out the possibility of preventing the newly elected PS mayor from entering office, but said that they would first wait for a report by the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights.

In a preliminary report, OSCE-ODIHR found that the June 30 elections were regular in 95% of polling stations, although stated that the elections were held with “little regard for the interests of the electorate.” Regarding the Meta-Rama conflict over the date of local elections, it was somewhat reserved, stating that the Constitutional Court is the only body that can make decisions regarding the constitutionality of presidential decrees.

There is not complete internal harmony within PD on this issue.

Other international reaction has also been inconclusive on the conflict between Rama and Meta, although they have tacitly appeared to support the elections’ authenticity.

EU spokesperson Maja Kocijancic said that the June 30 elections had transpired in a “context of political division” but described them as “quiet and regular.” Her statement went on to say that they expect political maturity and constructive dialogue from both political parties. 

Through a statement from its embassy in Tirana, the U.S. also described the elections as quiet, adding that the people who wish to contest the election results “can wait for the Constitutional Court, which we hope will be reestablished soon after undergoing a rigorous vetting process.”

Meanwhile, there is not complete internal harmony within PD on this issue. 

Jozefina Topalli, one of the most powerful figures in the party, who has held two mandates as speaker of the parliament and is a former vice president of the party from the period of Sali Berisha’s governance, accused Basha of reducing PD to a powerless party at both the central and local levels.

Moreover, she accused him of inciting fratricide between Albanians. 

“With the order to burn the mandates [of MPs in February], Lulzim Basha violently removed PD from Parliament, betraying and offending over 400,000 democrats who voted for this political force,” she said. “With this act, the most irresponsible act in the history of democracy, Basha practically invited Albanians to commit fratricide.”

Other influential figures in the party have also responded to Basha’s leadership. 

Rudina Hajdari, a PD deputy and daughter of Azem Hajdari, the founder and historic symbol of the party, declared that Albania now has no right wing, and that she sees a solution in the “return of the right wing,” alluding to changes in PD leadership.

The son of another deceased but significant former PD politician has also sought the restructuring of the party. Glauk Olldashi, the son of Sokol Olldashi — a former minister of internal affairs and transportation — said that it has been proven that the people have lost faith in PD and that this party needs an internal election process.K

Feature image: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.

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