Monday, December 4, 2023

Beyond the recent skirmishes, what is the real democracy challenge in Albania?

Former DP leader Sali Berisha.

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Images of violence in and around the headquarters of the opposition Democratic Party (DP) of Albania were to be seen on January 8 and prompted criticism. However, understanding the context is more relevant to the recent political developments in Albania.

The DP electoral defeat in the April 25, 2021, general elections was the last of uninterrupted election debacles under the eight years of Lulzim Basha’s chairmanship of the party. This period was also marred by controversial, contested, and significant Basha personal decisions to abandon Parliament and boycott local elections in 2019. Without these decisions we could have seen a change of government at the ballot box on April 25. Basha has never regretted his decisions let alone apologized for them. 

In the wake of the April 25, 2021 elections, there was a feeling of malaise, resignation and inertia among the party members and functionaries along with the passive rejection of Basha’s leadership. This, fortunately, started to change last fall with former DP chair (and former President and PM) Sali Berisha launching a tour with the party grassroots and openly discussing the situation within the party and in the country. 

The May 2021 designation by the US State Department of Berisha as “not eligible for entry in the US” was seen by most (including Basha) as inappropriate, incommensurate, selective, party politically motivated and unjustified; it played a role in the dynamics. However, Basha decided personally, under US diplomatic pressure, to expel Berisha from the DP parliamentary group instead of putting it to a vote in the party council as required by the statute. Basha claimed the US move was wrong, but he had to comply in order to preserve the DP relationship with the new American administration. This did not improve his standing as party leader. As Berisha vowed to keep the DP out of the designation issue, this matter ought to be kept separate.

The key development was that strictly following the party statutes a substantial majority of the DP congress delegates (5,200 of 7,647 or 68%) signed up for convening an extraordinary party congress. Under article 43/2 of the statute, such a congress can be convened by a request of 1/4 of its delegates or 1/4 of the party membership. Basha steadily refused to consider the delegates’ petition which was formally submitted in writing to his party headquarters and tried to procedurally hamper it. 

However, following the statutory rules, the extraordinary party congress was convened on December 11, 2021, with around 4,935 delegates present (or 65% of total) in the Tirana main stadium (myself included). The DP congress decided via secret ballot and by 4,446 votes (or 99% of votes cast) to remove Basha and to entrust the party management to a Provisional Committee until the regular party congress on March 22, 2022. 

Basha’s removal was put to a membership secret vote on December 18; 43,879 party members turned out to vote of which 43,385 or 98.8% confirmed the removal. 

Unfortunately, Basha refused to accept reality and the will of his party. He first tried to disband the DP Women and Youth organizations which had expressed support for convening the party congress. As the DP Women & Youth organizations are EPP members both the EPP Women & Students (EDS) protested and called on Basha to cease his efforts. A letter by EPP MEPs suggesting that Basha recognize the congress and the members’ vote has been circulated. 

Basha responded by calling a gathering on December 18 in a hall with 1,958 seats pretending it was the party congress (sic!). He could not explain how the hall could house the required minimal quorum (50% plus one) of 3,824 delegates. 

The shutting down by Basha last week, on its 31st anniversary, of the DP newspaper “Rilindja Demokratike”, which was the first free newspaper after Communism, is another sad event. 

Procedures are underway for returning the DP headquarters and legal representation to the legitimate Provisional Committee. Resistance to this, as we are seeing by a very small group of former party officials around Basha, is undemocratic, unlawful, and counterproductive. 

However, the courts are very influenced by the Socialist government also due to the ongoing vetting process. The ruling Socialist party has every interest to keep the weakened Basha group in charge of the official opposition. This also explains why the riot police saved the day for Basha allowing him to hold onto the party HQ.

The key issue for further democratic development in Albania is a solid and constructive opposition keeping an increasingly “corruptocratic” government in check. 

Basha, with no support in the DP grassroots and abysmal values in opinion polls, simply cannot do it. Unprincipled voting support for problematic government measures in the recent weeks, questionable joint initiatives with the government to amend the Constitution and allegations of murky commercial interests have further delegitimized Basha. 

The DP Provisional Committee faces the daunting challenge of rebuilding a credible opposition; it should strive to be seen by the public as a viable power alternative. Different from other countries in the region, post-Communist Albania has developed a bipartisan political landscape around the Democratic and Socialist parties which rotated in government and opposition. A third force simply is not in the pipeline. 

While the stark images on January 8 caught national and some European attention the real struggle in the country is about preventing the stranglehold of a kleptocratic regime that has centralized power (and economy & media) and has harnessed a well-oiled international lobbying network.

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