Edi Rama's ruling Socialists once again emerge victorious from the parliamentary elections in Albania. If the opposition returns to parliament after years of boycott, there will be further consolidation of Albanian democracy. Risks lie in the socio-ecological sphere: Social inequality, widespread corruption, emigration and overexploitation of nature limit sustainable development opportunities for the EU accession candidate.
Parliamentary elections were held in Albania on April 25. In the small Balkan country, 140 deputies were elected to the Assembly of Albania (Kuvendi i Shqipërisë) for a term of four years in twelve administrative regions according to a system of proportional representation.
The Socialist Party (Partia Socialiste, PS), led by Prime Minister Edi Rama, who has been in office since 2013, won 74 of the 140 seats with 48.68 percent of the vote. The opposition Democrats (Partia Demokratike, PD), led by Lulzim Basha, made significant gains, winning 59 mandates with 39.43 percent. The loser in this election was the Socialist Movement for Integration (Lëvizja Socialiste për Integrim, LSI), led by the wife of President Ilir Meta, which slipped to 6.81 percent and now holds only four seats. The smallest force is the Social Democratic Party (Partia Socialdemokrate, PSD) of the controversial businessman Tom Doshi. It achieved three mandates with 2.25 percent. The Party for Justice, Integration and Unity (Partia Drejtësi, Integrim dhe Unitet, PDIU) did not make it into parliament this time.
For the first time, several non-party candidates also ran. Three were supported by the Movement for Self-Determination (Lëvizja Vetëvendosje!, LVV). This was the partner organization of the party of the same name in Kosovo, which emerged as the clear winner of the parliamentary elections there in February 2021 under the leadership of Albin Kurti and is registered as an NGO in Albania. In the district of Dibër, the head of a mine workers' union also stood to campaign for the protection of miners working in poor conditions in the mines.
The elections were preceded by electoral reform, which took place under U.S. and EU mediation and was a condition for the start of accession talks. To this end, an extra-parliamentary council was established that, among other things, created the technical basis for the well-organized election. Although this agreement was subsequently changed again by the PS under strong criticism from the PD, the PD nevertheless decided to participate in the elections. The LSI, which ran alone, seems to have suffered from the subsequent changes to allow electoral alliances only with joint lists.
Politicization of the pandemic campaign
The campaign period began 30 days prior to the elections and was dominated primarily by major party rallies. Despite the highly polarized party landscape and confrontational language, campaign events were relatively calm. Basic political rights were generally respected. However, the ruling PS took considerable advantage of its executive position and instrumentalized public funds for its election campaign. Parallel to the election campaign, the government began vaccinating the population. This politicization of pandemic control was also made possible because the EU left its candidate countries out of the rule-based distribution of the vaccine. Edi Rama was able to distinguish himself as a charismatic figure with global contacts, for example, through the publicly effective agreement with Turkey to build a new hospital, which was completed just days before the elections.
The role of the media in the election campaign must also be viewed extremely critically. Although the small country has six national TV stations and about 800 news portals, at the same time market concentration is high and the ownership structure of the media is oligopolistic. Although a total of 17 electoral subjects (12 parties and 5 independent candidates) competed, the two major parties were predominantly the focus of news coverage. No televised debates were organized between the political leaders. Instead of creating a transparent debate on political content, the media allowed itself to be largely instrumentalized by polarized politics and the economic interests of the owners. The precarious employment conditions of journalists massively limit the space of media freedom. In order to secure their jobs, they tend to self-censor.
Voter turnout particularly high
Election day passed off quietly. The police reported only minor incidents. According to the OSCE/ODHIR, the elections were generally well organized and the newly established electronic voter identification system was used in all polling stations. The localities closed at 7 p.m., after which counting took nearly 48 hours. Strong interest in the parliamentary elections was observed nationwide. Despite the pandemic, large segments of the population participated in the elections. 1,661,187 voters cast their ballots on Sunday. Voter turnout in relation to the resident population of voting age was more than 70 percent, relatively high by both historical and regional standards. When calculating voter turnout, it must be taken into account that more than a third of the approximately 3.6 million registered voters have already emigrated. Although the electoral law provides for the participation of Albanians abroad, it has not yet been technically implemented. However, their broad participation in the elections according to their currently existing entries in the respective local registers would massively affect the representativeness of the election results. For the next elections, therefore, the establishment of separate constituencies for Albanian expatriates would be well worth considering.
Participation of women in politics
Women actively participated in the election campaign and were targeted as voters. Since 2015, an electoral law has required that at least 30 percent of candidates on the lists be female. The major parties adhere to the quotas; of the 1,841 candidates*, 732 were women (40 percent). In the current cabinet, eight of 17 ministers are female. Political representation is reflected in the Gender Equality Index (GEI 2017): In the area of political power, Albania has higher gender parity compared to the 28 EU countries. The largest gaps are in the areas of knowledge, money, and time. Local feminists criticize that political representation does not allow any conclusions to be drawn about the reality of women's lives in the country. Patriarchal structures continue to prevail and women receive insufficient support. There are no state-run women's shelters and no gender studies at universities. According to media reports, the number of cases of gender-based violence doubled during the lockdown in April.
Cult of personality instead of party program
The parliamentary elections took place against the backdrop of the relatively positive foreign policy record of the past year. In March 2020, for example, the European Council gave the green light for Albania to join the EU. The decision recognized the efforts of the country, which has been reforming its judicial system since 2016. To this end, new anti-corruption institutions have been established and the criminal justice system has been decentralized. At the same time, all judges and prosecutors are screened for professional suitability, assets and possible links to organized crime. The judicial reform aims to depoliticize the authorities, create an independent judiciary, and establish the population's trust in the legal system and necessary framework conditions for investment. However, these cannot develop their positive effects as long as other investment factors remain absent, such as a highly skilled workforce, good health care, affordable social services, livable, clean cities and environment. However, political actors have once again missed the opportunity to present long-term strategies for sustainable development.
The PS campaigned under the slogan "No time for a break," pointing to supposedly successful infrastructure projects and the management of the pandemic. The PD promised economic recovery, jobs and accession to the European Union. Although the coronavirus and the November 2019 earthquake revealed numerous social ills, the opposition left structural problems in health, education and housing unaddressed in the election campaign. Thus, in the ninth election since the beginning of the democratization process, instead of political programs, the political competition for voters' favor was once again characterized by populist campaign promises and, above all, a cult of personality. The focus was on the two party leaders Edi Rama and Lulzim Basha.
Edi Rama can run for a third term in office
With this election result, Edi Rama (PS) can run for a third term and continue to govern alone. The return of the opposition to parliament will contribute significantly to the consolidation of the formal structures of representative democracy - and thus another condition for the opening of EU accession negotiations will be met. However, the main challenges to democratic consolidation in Albania still lie in the informal structures of the state-society relationship. Given the weakness of social actors and the lack of a differentiated, productive economic structure, political actors continue to see themselves as managing the skimming process-whether it is the skimming of remittances from foreign Albanians, international financial and economic aid, or natural resources by a small elite that dominates the commercial sector and the construction industry. The relatively high public debt, which is not used for productive purposes, also represents a siphoning off - namely of the resources of future generations. The weakness of society perpetuates the weakness of politics-a structure that knows how to defend itself by keeping channels of emigration open and practiced practices of clientelism. Flourishing markets, modern high-rises and infrastructure projects in the areas of energy and transportation form the enticing facade of this order.
No strategy against peripheralization in sight
To be sure, in the aftermath of the recent parliamentary elections, a caesura is emerging in the recent history of Albania's democratization process, which was repeatedly marked by strong political and social intolerance that weakened the legitimacy of statehood and destabilized the country. However, the risks in the socio-ecological sphere remain and should be given greater focus in the future, also by European actors, so that Albania's sustainable development opportunities can be realized.