As the general elections in Albania on June 23rd approached, many people agreed it was high time for Sali Berisha, the first post-communist Albanian President and the oldest leader of the opposition parties in post-communist countries still in power, to leave. Yet, few predicted the large difference between the winning center-left coalition led by the Socialist Party and the Democratic Party-led coalition of the center-right. Even more unpredictable was the quiet resignation of the 67-years old Democratic Party leader Berisha just three days after the elections and the lack of any contestation of the electoral process, or its results.
The 2013 general elections, the quickest and most peaceful ones in the history of post-communism in the country, put an end to the eight year administration of the center right coalition, Alliance for Employment, Welfare and Integration (AEWI), led by the first opposition party in post-communist Albania, the Democratic Party, and brought to power the Alliance for European Albania (AEA) led by the Socialist Party (SP) and its leader, the 49-years-old, artist and former mayor of Tirana, Edi Rama.
Contrary to what national polls, surveys, media analysts and other electoral pundits predicted, the difference was deep and clear: 60% for the SP led coalition, and 40% for the Democrat-led coalition, which translates to 66 seats for the Socialist Party (SP), 16 seats for its ally the Socialist Movement for Integration (SMI), and 49 seats for the Democratic Party. Whereas in the 2009 general elections, the Socialist Party won 65 out of 66 total seats won by the center-left coalition, and the Democratic Party won 68 out of 70 seats won by the center-right coalition, the 2013 elections showed a wider gap between the two main Parties and a stronger positioning of the Socialist Movement for Integration (SMI). Out of 12 constituencies, the Democrats stood in clear advantage in Kukës only, falling behind the Socialists-led coalition in all the rest. More surprisingly, the Socialist-led coalition reaped success even in traditional strongholds of the Democratic Party, such as the northwestern city of Shkodra, where it got 4 MPs, plus one seat won by the coalition party, the Socialist Movement for Integration (SMI) leading to a total of 5 parliamentary seats out of a total of 11 seats for the entire constituency. In fact, the Socialists, by themselves, did not fare any better when compared to 2009: they won the same number of votes in 2013 (4). However, when combined with 1 vote won by the Socialist Movement for Integration, the AEA 5 seats overall in the district. The Democratic Party won 5 votes, faring worse than in the 2009 general elections, when it won 7 out of 7 seats won by the Alliance for Change.
However, the Socialist Movement for Integration (SMI) is clearly the biggest winner of these elections. SMI was founded in 2004, following an inter-party rift between the SMI leader and former Socialist Prime Minister, Ilir Meta and the SP leader of the time, Fatos Nano. Following the 2009 elections, it became part of the coalition government as the center-right coalition led by the Democratic Party could not form a ruling majority by itself. With just four seats in the Parliament, and while part of the governing coalition, the SMI held key ministerial posts, such as the minister of health, economy and foreign affairs, as well as a dozen of vice-ministers and several other administrative posts. Just over a month before the elections of 2013 and without any obvious programmatic rift with the ruling center-right coalition, the SMI shifted loyalties and jumped to the Socialist ship. Whereas in 2005, SMI won 4 seats in the Parliament, in the new Parliament it will have no less than 16 SME MPs, an unprecedented record for a third party in the country.
An important factor which explains the electoral result lies with the fatigue and frustration caused by an eight years old administration and government, which apart from its successes failed to uproot corruption or offer a tangible response to citizens’ daily economic challenges. For sure, the Democratic Party and its outgoing leader Berisha have a lot of accomplishments: the signing of the Association and Stabilization Agreement with the EU, the liberalization of visas with the EU, NATO membership, mega construction projects such as the Kukës-Morina highway, linking Albania to Kosovo, the signing of the gas pipeline TAP which will import gas from Central Asia and which bypassed the other competing European project Nabbucco. Yet, for many, these achievements came to be seen as too distant from their daily struggles, and combined with Berisha’s public commitment to stay in power for as long as he lived, the prospect looked for many Thatcherlike-dull, if not bleak.
Yet, this is not the entire picture: the Socialist camp did not offer an altogether different alternative; apart from the ‘progressive tax’ option, the fight against corruption—which has been a dominant theme in electoral and political discourse in Albania from 2005 onwards—and a vague rhetorical Europeanism, the Socialist-led left did not seriously challenge the liberal reforms of the center-right nor offer a new vision. Nor did it provide a plausible explanation as to how it would create 300 thousand jobs, as promised. Furthermore, apart from an established ‘traditional’ Socialist electorate, there was not a massive leap of the Socialist votes as compared to 2009.
The key to understanding the elections result lies with the rise of a grey-zone pragmatist electorate, which mainly voted for the Socialist Movement for Integration (SMI). The pre-electoral coalition of the Socialists with the SMI proved to have a dramatic impact on the overall electoral picture: had not been for the ‘SME’ effect, the picture would have been very different, even if not favorable to the center-right camp.
Though many on the right have attributed the victory of the newly formed Socialist-led coalition exclusively to the financial power of the SMI, financial pragmatism cannot be the only explanation. With its personal, face-to-face approach, individual contacts and networking with the business community —which replaced the traditional campaigning in open spaces—as well as concrete promises for employment, the SMI offered a more practical alternative as opposed to massive, antagonistic, and familiar narratives of the past campaigns of the two main parties. In some constituencies, and particularly in the ‘surprise cases’ like Shkodra, the economic capital of businessmen proved to have a stronger pull effect than the symbolic capital of traditional politicians, who drew on regional/local cultural identities and references to the communist past of the opponent. One can say that Berisha’s pragmatism to form a ‘survival coalition’ with the SMI in 2009 cost him, and the Democrats, dearly in 2013. The 2013 elections proved that SMI has turned into a ‘king-maker’ force in Albanian politics, and it looks like it will continue to play this role for some years to come.
Great expectations and the European vocation
The 2013 elections were largely considered as a litmus test for Albanian democracy and for the credibility of its European vocation. Although Albanian elites have constantly emphasized their commitment to EU integration, their less ardent commitment to fair and transparent elections have proved that their ‘Europeanism’ is little more than lip-service to the EU officials and, more broadly to the ‘international community’. Yet, the 2013 elections showed no proof of vote-mongering, and no problems with the counting or with the lists have been reported so far. Surprisingly, whereas it has been an established practice on the part of the opposition to fiercely contest the victory of the opponent for the part of almost all the past elections in the country, the center-right coalition and the outgoing Prime Minister Berisha accepted the result and even called for reflection on the part of the Democrats regarding the internal factors leading to the defeat.
This positive mood seems to have spilled over to Albania’s relations with the neighbors, too. Following in the steps of his predecessor, the former Socialist Prime Minister and the historical leader of the reformed former communist Party, Fatos Nano, Rama promptly promised to improve relations with neighboring Greece and strengthen regional cooperation, particularly with reference to the energy sector, as well as tackle delicate issues such as the deal on naval borders between the two countries. On June 30th, the Greek daily Kathimerini opened with the enthusiastic quote from Rama that the winter is now over, and spring is on its way in the relations between Greece and Albania. (In fact, the Socialist Party’s campaign received broad coverage in the Greek media even before the 23rd June).
The international community rushed to applaud the peaceful and smooth transition. The EU Ambassador in Tirana, Ettore Sequi hailed the peaceful and civic conduct of parties and voters during the 2013 elections as proof of the progressive entrenchment of the European mentality in the Albanian society and among its leaders, and stressed that Albania’s ‘candidate status’ is within reach.
European integration is largely perceived in the country as the grand finalite, the end of transition and the only viable political option. Yet, democratization takes more than style and rhetoric, and Albanian politicians have often demonstrated an inability or lack of will to think outside the box of party or individual self-interest. The EU norms and democratic requirements have been often translated domestically to the counter effect of perpetuating formalism and procedural democracy. Democratization and modernization of the public administration will be a hefty task for the new government.
Another challenge Rama faces is internal: he will have to return the debt he owes to the SMI for joining forces in these elections. This will mean awarding SMI with key ministerial posts, which might cause resentment and frustration among the Socialists. His relationship with the opposition, the Democrat President, and the judiciary are crucial tests for Rama, himself, and more broadly, Albanian democracy, too. There are many who anticipate a revanchist campaign against the former power cupola in the course of Rama’s much promised war against corruption. But this would certainly bring authoritarian reminiscences, and the memory of the imprisonment of his Socialist predecessor, Fatos Nano by the Democrat-led government in 1993. Rama would certainly not want to invite comparisons with his sworn enemy till a fortnight ago.
Apart from politics, the new government will be faced with economic challenges, such as the significant decrease in emigrants’ remittances—many of them from Albanian emigrants in Greece—and a broader economic crisis which does not leave much space for improvisation. Yet, the current challenge for the ingoing majority is to keep the positive post-electoral spirit alive, and keep internal tensions unearthed, at least till the outgoing government hands peacefully over to the new one in September.