albania is about to hold its tenth general elections since the fall of the communist regime in a week’s time. Though the country struggled during the 1990s, Albania managed to make tangible progress in the 2000s. In 2006, it signed a Stabilisation and Association Agreement, SAA, with the EU and three years later it became a full member of NATO.
Its progress in fighting corruption and organised crime was recognised by the EU Council decision in 2010 to lift the Schengen visa regime for Albanian citizens.
However, its nascent free market economy remained fragile, making it non-competitive and far from resilient against the outbreak of the global financial crisis in 2008.
By the beginning of the 2010s, corruption in public administration, the judicial system and government departments had become a widespread phenomenon. A lack of freedom of expression and respect for human rights were also of great concern.
It was in these circumstances that Edi Rama, former Minister of Culture and Mayor of Tirana, and leader of the Socialist Party, was elected Prime Minster in the 2013 general elections by a landslide, after eight years spent in opposition.
Rama promised to fight corruption and organised crime, reform the healthcare and education systems, create 300,000 new jobs and accelerate EU integration.
Paradoxically, instead of moving the country forward, his premiership has become a major setback for the country.
The Socialist government soon exhibited major flaws when it came to fighting corruption and organised crime. People with notorious pasts and even criminal records were promoted in parliament and local government.
This led the opposition Democratic Party, with international support, to submit and get adopted in 2015 an unprecedented law, known as the de-criminalisation package, which aimed to remove from public office all people with criminal records.
The 2017 US State Department report on Drug and Criminal Control deemed Albania a significant source country for marijuana, as well as a transit route for cocaine and heroin destined for European markets.
Leaked wiretaps by Italian anti-mafia authorities led to the prosecution of a former Socialist interior minister, Saimiri Tahiri, for international drug trafficking and participation in a structured criminal organisation.
Democracy has also deteriorated during Rama’s double governing terms.
Its troubled but still functioning democracy has further degraded towards authoritarian, one-man rule, intolerant towards freedom of expression and a free press.
Prime Minister Rama has personally harassed, filed defamation lawsuits against and insulted journalists, calling them trash cans as well as professionally incapable.
In 2019, his government proposed a controversial anti-defamation package to parliament, clearly aiming to target critical journalists and media outlets. More recently, the government lost an investment-arbitration case for shutting down Agon TV station in 2015, which closed after politically motivated state authorities charged the owner with tax invasion, forgery and money laundering.
Albania has lost its battle against corruption, which now seems endemic in every level of government. The Institute for Democracy and Mediation, a think tank based in Tirana, in collaboration with the international rights watchdog Transparency International, published a report describing Albania as a captured state in which parliament adopts tailor-made laws that benefit private interests at the expense of the public interest.
Democratic backsliding is further exemplified by the failure of Albania to hold free and fair elections. When Rama came in power in 2013, he pledged to restore democracy and public trust in elections. Contrary to what he promised, in power he has become one of the biggest spoilers of freeness and fairness of elections. Wiretaps published by Germany’s Bild have revealed vote-buying schemes and intimidation of voters perpetrated by Socialist MPs, mayors and ministers.
These setbacks in the rule of law and democracy have impeded Albania’s EU accession process. After eight years in power Rama’s government has only managed to formally open accession negotiations with the EU. In March 2020 the European Council decided to schedule the first intergovernmental conference with Albania – provided it met extended conditions on rule of law, the fight against corruption and organised crime, as well as implement OSCE-ODHIR recommendations in the electoral code to ensure free and fair elections.
Due to the poor performance of the economy, meanwhile, with high unemployment, especially among the youth, and poor salaries, Albania has suffered massive depopulation.
The young especially have fled to EU countries in search of better living conditions. Since 2012, Albania has ranked among the top countries of origin for asylum seekers in EU member states.
Against this backdrop, the right-wing Democratic Party, the biggest opposition party led by Lulzim Basha, is running in a broad coalition with smaller opposition parties and the Socialist Movement for Integration, LSI, the third biggest party in Albania.
The Democratic Party pledges to restore the economy hit by the COVID pandemic, reform health and education, restore democracy, fight corruption and organised crime as well as move Albania’s EU integration process forward.
Nonetheless, Basha faces three challenges: first to win this election, second to get rid of the old guard within his party, which has undermined its inner democratisation and third go end the prolonged, bumpy democratic transition of Albania.
Addressing these challenges has become more acute as Albania’s protracted democratic transition, rampant corruption and EU integration fatigue have brought about massive disillusionment among the population toward the proclaimed benefits of democracy.
A recent survey shows that only 38 per cent of Albanians believe they can change the government through elections, the lowest percentage in the Balkans. The widespread dissatisfaction of Albanians with democracy and politics may keep the voter turnout low in the April 25 elections, which would benefit the incumbent corrupt government.
In this context, the choice this time seems existential, between continued democratic erosion or democratic restoration. The stakes are too high for people to stand by. It is time for Albanian citizens stop their country sliding into the mud – and make democracy prevail.
Altin Gjeta holds a Master of Arts in International Relations and Politics from the University of Westminster, London. He is a research fellow at Albanian Centre for Good Government, a Tirana based NGO.