Putting Albania’s Democracy to the Test

Albania’s parliamentary elections, due for June 25th, are a test for the country. They will take place amid political turmoil and uncertainty, against the background of the country’s long-term hopes to join the European Union. Among the many benchmarks the EU wants Albania to meet before accession talks begin, one is especially crucial: judicial reform. Although Albania is a NATO member and has implemented a democratic voting system, Brussels wants to see “trouble-free elections and a revamped judiciary tackling widespread corruption” in order to give Tirana full marks.

As things stand, politicians and the judiciary work together far too closely for there to be a fair system of checks and balances. There appears to be a pervasive “you scratch my back, and I’ll scratch yours” mentality. Judicial reform would mean, most of all, giving the judiciary enough power to enforce the law and end government corruption in Albania. Practical steps would include adopting a law to exclude criminal offenders from public office, including former members of the Sigurimi—the secret police force that enforced the brutal communist dictatorship of Enver Hoxha. Installing and enforcing lustration laws would create bodies to vet over 800 judges and prosecutors, and would be the necessary first step toward establishing the independent judiciary that is a prerequisite for accession talks with the EU.

According to a survey by the Institute for Development Research and Alternatives (IDRA), 64 percent of Albanians strongly support judicial reform. Still, even with a majority of the public showing support for reform, 66 percent believed that there will be groups who will attempt to stop Parliament from approving it.

Who are the ones trying to stop this reform? There is a common belief among Albanian citizens that this opposition comes from former communists who are still in power today as politicians in the Socialist Party or in the judicial system. The Partia Socialiste, or Socialist Party—the legal successor to Enver Hoxha’s dictatorial communist party—is in power in Albania today. Public discomfort with the continued power of ex-communists is evident in another recent major poll by IDRA and the OSCE, in which 80% of respondents supported a lustration law to remove public officials who had leadership roles in Hoxha’s regime. Albania’s Democratic Party also alleges that the party has been buying votes with money earned through drug trafficking. Nevertheless, the Socialist Party, led by PM Edi Rama, continues to lead in the polls.

Political tensions escalated so much that the opposition took to the streets. Lulzim Basha and Fatmir Mediu, the leaders of Albania’s Democratic and Republican Parties of Albania respectively, led a peaceful protest of more than 10,000 people in the streets of Tirana, and set up camp in one of the main streets in Tirana, directly in front of Rama’s office. Basha accused the current Socialist government of failing to deliver on its promises of creating 300,000 jobs and establishing free healthcare—and even leveled allegations of criminality, citing corruption and links to drug trafficking.

From February 18 to May 18, 2017, the Albanian opposition, led by the Democratic Party, boycotted parliament, charging the Socialist-led government of “trying to manipulate the voting process” and demanding that it step down in favor of a caretaker government able to guarantee free and fair voting. As Basha told the crowds on the first day of his street protest, “I invite you all to stay together to achieve holding of free and fair elections that will come after the replacement of this government of crime with a caretaker government to the free polls... Free elections, or no elections at all.”

The protest exacerbated the polarization of Albanian citizens, already strong because of the extreme distrust some feel for the Socialist Party. Thankfully, the three-month-long protest has ended, and the two opposing parties have reached an agreement:

The opposition will be allowed to control seven ministries by appointing technocrats, including the interior ministry, which is responsible for running elections.

The opposition will pick the head of an election commission, and the general election will be postponed by one week from June 18 to June 25.
The opposition will end their boycott and return to parliament in order to pass a bill that will set up the agency to vet judges and weed out corrupt magistrates.

What’s next for Albania? All parties need to participate in the June 25 elections and move towards judicial reform. This reform is especially necessary in post-Communist countries like Albania where remnants of the communist past still exist. The fact that there are magistrates in places whose backgrounds render them subject to manipulation means that vetting procedures are sorely needed.

Twenty-six years after the end of communism, Albanian citizens are still fighting for democracy, a struggle that has taken them from fighting isolationism in 1992 to street protests in 2017. While the boycott was a headache for international observers—who seemed to view it as akin to the tantrum of an upset child—it resulted in an agreement and compromise between two opposing parties who decided to put away their snarky remarks and work towards true democracy by and for the people. In moving beyond the protests, Albanians have passed one test. The next one will come on the 25th.

Mariza SmajlajComment