The Outcome of Local Elections in Albania: Testament of a Failed Democracy

By Cafo Boga

This past Sunday, on May 14, 2023, Albanian citizens voted for their mayors in local elections. Preliminary results show that the ruling Socialist Party, which has held most municipalities since they came to power, was a decisive winner also this time, winning 53 out of 60 municipalities. The voting proceeded without any major incident, but as in any election, there will be reported irregularities. To someone who is not aware of the true situation in Albania, it will seem that Albania has become a stable democratic country holding free elections and that the overwhelming vote for the Socialist Party indicates that the country is unified and not divided along party lines. However, this is far from the truth. The voters themselves are astonished by the voting results because they cannot believe that the ruling party has such a strong influence even on local elections. Albanians in general are disappointed in the present failed government policies, overwhelming corruption, lack of economic opportunity, and massive emigration. The logical question is, How do they manage to get the majority vote, election after election? The answer to this valid question is not an easy one; there are many factors involved that have been at work from the very inception of democracy back in 1992. According to a newly released public opinion poll conducted by the International Republican Institute’s (IRI) Center for Insights in Survey Research (CISR), Albanians continue have a substantial concerns about the economy, corruption, and local governance. However, despite these challenges, the majority of Albanians continue to express strong support for democratic governance.

Notwithstanding Albanians strong support for democracy, the inability to promptly address the political and social problems that evolved over the years has brought the country to a peculiar situation: the failing of democracy and the emergence of dictatorship, which threatens the country’s stability even to the point of becoming a failed state. A failed state is one that has lost its ability to effectively govern its people. Although a failed state maintains legal sovereignty, it experiences a breakdown in political power, law enforcement, and civil society, leading to a state of near anarchy. However, I want to neither speculate nor be the judge of this statement; I will leave it to the people, especially the citizens of Albania, to decide whether Albania fits this definition or not.

The Evolution of (the End of) Albanian Democracy

The evolution of Albanian democracy began in December 1990 with the creation of independent political parties, signaling the end of the communists’ official monopoly of power. In March 1992, a decisive electoral victory was won by the anticommunist opposition led by the Democratic Party, which caused the incumbent communist president Ramiz Alia to resign and Sali Berisha to be elected as the first democratic leader of Albania since 1924.

Albania’s progress toward democratic reform helped it gain membership in many international organizations, which formally brought an end to its isolation. Finally, Albania and Albanians began integrating with the West, of which they have always viewed themselves as being part. However, during post-war negotiations with the Soviet Union concerning the boundary between the East and the West, the European powers decided to grant Albania to the Eastern Bloc.

During the preliminary phase of post-communism in Albania, efforts to establish a free-market economy caused severe disruptions. Together with many other strategic mistakes made by the government, these disruptions caused the economy to collapse in 1997, despite considerable amounts of aid from developed countries. Many Albanians lost their savings in various pyramid schemes, resulting in civil disorder. The United Nations peacekeeping force was brought in to keep the peace. Following this huge failure by the Democratic Party, the Albanian Socialist Party won by a landslide in legislative elections later that year and maintained power in elections in 2001. Power shifted back to the Democratic Party following the 2005 elections, and former President Berisha was named prime minister. He tried to implement not only the economic and social reforms mandated by the European Union (EU) as preconditions to gaining membership but also those mandated by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The government made visible efforts to lower crime rates, deter corruption, and deal with other social problems. On April 1, 2009, Albania became an official member of the NATO alliance, which helped Berisha remain prime minister following highly contested June elections in which the Democrats defeated the Socialists by a narrow margin. The Socialists decided to object by boycotting the parliament and organizing street protests that culminated in a January 2021 demonstration outside the prime minister’s office that spiraled into violence; four protesters were shot and killed by guards. The ongoing tension between the government and the opposition weakened Albania’s endeavors to obtain candidate status for succession to the EU. Moreover, the inability to restore voter confidence and establish transparency in the election process, coupled with a sluggish economy, would continue to plague Albania for some time to come. The campaign leading up to the June 2013 general election was peaceful, but a shooting on election day left a Democratic candidate wounded and a Socialist supporter dead.

The results of the June 2013 elections signaled a dramatic change in the Albanian political order: The Socialists, led by former Tirana mayor Edi Rama, captured a sizable majority of seats in parliament. Former Prime Minister Berisha, who had been the dominant figure in Albanian politics since the Fall of Communism, conceded defeat. In 2014, Albania was granted candidate status for accession to the EU, but progress toward full membership depended on the passage of significant political and economic reforms. In the June 2015 local elections, the coalition led by Rama’s Socialist Party won 46 of 61 mayoral races. The election process was largely free of the irregularities and violence that had marked previous elections, which was welcomed by all the citizens.

At the local elections held on My 14, 2023, the Socialist Party scored another overwhelming victory, thus further consolidating its power. So, what does all this means in terms of the future. In my opinion, election results clearly demonstrate that the Socialist Party has become an omnipotent ruling party, dictating the terms and conditions to all governmental institution and local municipalities. Democratic Party, on the other hand, is in total disarray. Moreover, with sustained losses suffered even in these local elections, the party went further into abyss.  To exist as one of the leading parties and to gain its momentum, it will need a substantial reform and a new approach. While SMI position to be the third influential party in the country is considerably weakened and its existence will become a going concern unless it manages to rebrand itself.  Corruption and intermingling of powerful business, political, and media interests will remain a serious problem, thus infringing upon development of a true democracy. Having said that, as long as Albania’s political system is dominated by the same old political elite from all the three leading parties, it’s an illusion to expect any major change il Albania. Albania’s political problems demand real structural reforms that today is much more difficult to implement than when the country transition from communism to democracy.

Parliamentary Democracy or Dominant-Party Dictatorship?

Ever since the collapse of communism in 1992, the citizens of Albania have been waiting for democracy to become a reality in their country. So far, they have been waiting in vain, much like the protagonists in Waiting for Godot, the play written by Samuel Beckett, who are waiting for the arrival of the mysterious Godot, who continually sends word that he will arrive soon but never does. With the passage of time, suffering and the absurdity of existence increase. Likewise, with every new election in Albania, there is hope that better days are coming and that democracy will finally take root, but so far, every new election has shifted the elected government further away from democracy in favor of an oligarchy ruled by a dictator, regardless of party. As far as political platforms are concerned, there is not much difference in political philosophy among political parties in Albania. The only difference is in their leaders: Which of them is most influential and powerful, and who can subjugate his adversaries and gain the oligarchs’ favor? While they publicly fight each other, it seems as if the political elite from the three parties in question have made an undisclosed agreement to support each other so as to stay in power. Perhaps this is the reason they are still around after so many years in politics, making it impossible for a new generation of politicians to emerge.

In the context of the local elections in Albania that took place on May 14, 2023, the International Institute for Middle East and Balkan Studies (IFIMES) conducted an analysis of the country’s current political situation, an assessment that is even bleaker than the situation appears to be. The analysis is titled “2023 Local Elections in Albania: Choice between Drug Cartel and/or Parliamentary Republic?” and starts by highlighting the following:

The list of issues that Albania needs to address include judicial reform, fight against crime (drug trafficking and human trafficking) and corruption, lack of independent media, depoliticization of institutions, improved efficiency, as well as establishment of a more dynamic dialogue between the government and the opposition with the aim of making the reforms more comprehensive and swifter. Political pressures, intimidation, corruption, and limited resources have prevented the judiciary from becoming fully functional, independent, and effective. The corruption is omnipresent in all the segments and all levels of the government, including the areas of public procurement and public-private partnerships.

Truly not a good report card for any political leader aiming to cling to power, but that does not deter Mr. Rama, who is an artist by profession and who has become an artist in politics, capable of manipulating his foes and his friends, including leaders and senior officials of some other countries.

Normally, local elections are meant for municipalities to participate in, not for the leaders of leading political parties, but in Albania, these elections have become fierce competitions between the party leaders: On the one hand, the current prime minister, Edi Rama, and on the other the “Together We Win” coalition, led by two former presidents and relics of Albanian politics, Sali Berisha and Ilir Meta. According to IFIMES study, public opinion polls prior to election reflected the level of public support to be more or less equal, with the coalition dominating in the north of Albania and with increasing levels of support in the south as well. Notwithstanding, the pre-election polls in Albania do not always offer credible indicators of the opinion of the electorate; even these election results prove this to be correct. So how did it happen that, according to this study, “Edi Rama and his ‘background’ have closed to Albania the doors to membership in the EU, because as long as Rama is at the helm of the Albanian government, the country will not be co-opted into the EU.” In my opinion, this phenomenon can be attributed to both domestic and international factors. Domestically, the party in power, masterminded by the politically savvy Prime Minister Rama, has taken control of the country by weakening all governmental institutions, inflicting fear on citizens who do not agree with his policies and hypnotizing others with his style of leadership. In its conclusion, the IFIMES study makes another interesting observation:

With the fall of Enver Hoxha’s communist regime in 1991, the retrograde forces were defeated. However, after the arrival of Edi Rama and his Socialist Party (SP), whose roots go back to the former communist party of Albania, these forces were revitalized. Led by his desire to remain in power, Rama will try to transfer the crisis from Albania to the region as well as the broader European area. Albania needs a new cycle of democratization and decriminalization of the state.

In my opinion, Rama’s greater enabler came from the outside—the international community, especially the West (the United States and the European Union)—by continuing, directly or indirectly, to support the old political elite, apparently for the sake of security in Albania and in the region. Although a Western geopolitical strategy is without a doubt in the best interest of the region because such a strategy is in the best interest of the West as well, the way the West has managed the transformation from communism to democracy in the Balkans leaves much to be desired. Such a huge transition in a region encumbered with entangled history and a bloody past needed a Marshal Plan–type of undertaking to be professionally implemented, with an explicit, well-thought-out plan and budget in place. Instead, the West left the countries in the Balkans to self-implement this transition, although none had the technical capabilities to do so nor any experience in democracy. To have the West manage it on an ad hoc basis was not sufficient, and the proof is in the pudding: Some 40 years later, there is hardly any functioning democracy in the region. In certain respects, Western management of the development of democratic principles in the region has been irrational and puzzling. How can the West establish a democratic system in a country by supporting one corrupt group against another corrupt group as it dead in Albania, or perhaps that is the approach—let the “big fish” eat each other first, and then we will do the needful to straighten the country out. It is interesting to observe the recent process that has started to gradually eliminate the proponents of destabilization, crime, and corruption, which commenced in Northern Macedonia, then Kosovo and now Montenegro, so perhaps next are Albania and the Serbian Republic of Bosnia. Regrettably, so far there has been no indication that Serbia will be joining the West, and as long as that remains open, peace and stability in the Balkans remains an issue. 

Is Democracy Failing?

In their 2022 report, the Brookings Institution concludes that the once-proud American democracy is facing a systemic crisis and is accelerating its decline. The impact is spreading to all fronts in domestic politics, the economy, and society, posing a mortal threat to the legitimacy and health of capitalism. In the article “America’s Self-Obsession Is Killing Its Democracy,” written by Brian Klaas for the prestigious Atlantic Magazine, he states, “The U.S. still has a chance to fix itself before 2024. But when democracies start dying—as ours already has—they usually don’t recover.” Articlesof this nature are numerous these days, especially after the last presidential elections and the events that followed, which further divided the nation along political lines. The backsliding of American democracy has had an adverse effect on the influence of American foreign policy around the world, which is giving China an opportunity to emerge as a significant player and perhaps soon a leader in world politics.

According to an opinion piece by leading American think tanks, democracy in America is facing three existential threats: election subversion, a growing disconnect between policy and public opinion, and a longstanding gulf between democracy and Americans’ everyday lives. To these three, I would add economic inequality, cultural reactions to societal changes, external influence by great power politics, globalization, and others. Despite the core values of democracy—liberty, equality, and justice—democracies in general have not been very successful in reducing economic inequality. To assess Abraham Lincoln’s phrase that democracy is a government “of the people, by the people, and for the people,” even in this way the system is not functioning as claimed. Yes, the United States is a representative democracy, which means that the government is elected by citizens who vote for their government officials. The elected officials are supposed to represent in government the citizens’ ideas and concerns, but in reality, their actions are mainly dictated by party politics and influential wealthy supporters and business interests.

I have provided this overview of the state of democracy in the United States as a rationale for why American involvement in Albanian affairs has been ineffective and sometimes even irrational, hence doing more harm than good. One such example is the behavior of American ambassadors in Albania, who, on their own or as instructed, have acted as if they were the governors of the Republic of Albania and not the ambassadors of the United States to Albania. The end result was that they completely destroyed the main opposition party, only to kill one “big fish” while at the same time leaving the country in the hands of the party in power to do with whatever they want. I hope that the truth behind these moves by my government, to which I am not privy, that have left me, and many Albanian citizens perplexed, proves me wrong.

In conclusion, notwithstanding all the imperfections of democracy, it is a system worth preserving because there is none better. To quote Winston Churchill, “democracy is the worst form of government—except for all the others that have been tried.” True democracy is supposed to provide equal rights among citizens, improve dignity, and enhance the decision-making process. The most basic benefit of democracy is that the government is supposed to be accountable to the citizens and responsive to their needs and expectations. However, democracy cannot exist without the rule of law and strong democratic institutions that function without direct control by the government in power. It is precisely this what is missing in Albania, the lack of strong and sustainable democratic institutions and the functioning rule of law, two essential components of a democratic political system and the foundation for a prosperous and equitable society.