Albanian elections during COVID-19: democracy must remain a top priority

#CriticalThinking

Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Fjoralba Caka
Fjoralba Caka

Former Albanian deputy minister of justice and 2020-2021 European Young Leader (EYL40)

Photo of This article is a part of our Balkans Journey series.
This article is a part of our Balkans Journey series.

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Show more information on This article is a part of our Balkans Journey series.

Friends of Europe’s Balkans Journey seeks to circumvent stagnant debates on enlargement in order to focus on moving the region forward in practical terms through political imagination and forward-looking solutions.

Reframing the narrative to focus people-centred priorities rather than political objectives can bring a fresh policy perspective to overwrought discussions on how to strengthen and develop the Balkan region and close the gap to the EU.

A greater focus on inclusion and amplifying the voices of women and youth is one clear path forward. Other priorities include digital transition, green transformation, increased regional cooperation and the strengthening of democracy and rule of law.

Our articles and the Balkans Journey as a whole will engage with these overlapping and interlinking themes, promote new and progressive voices, and foster pathways to regional cooperation, resilience and inclusion, informing the content and recommendations for our annual EU-Western Balkans Summit.

The recent general elections in Albania faced the challenge of organising an election safely and democratically in the midst of a pandemic. Although health protocols were not completely waived for electoral activities, they were not always respected by political parties, sometimes jeopardising the health of citizens.

Political campaigning in this election was generally perceived as calm and balanced. However, the serenity of the electoral process was disturbed by two violent physical clashes, one of which led to a loss of life, as well as allegations of vote-buying.

Although the accusations of vote-buying were relatively sporadic, any case of electoral fraud should be closely investigated. Firstly, because a fair and just investigation is a test case for the newly reformed justice institutions to prove their independence and professionalism. Secondly, because an investigation would contribute to upholding democracy and the electoral process.

Buying votes is not only an illegal act of corruption, but an ugly manoeuvre that alienates and silences the voice of citizens. It is no coincidence that instances of influencing voting outcomes through money or favours occur in more remote regions, where the connection between politics and citizens is very distant. And unfortunately, the wider the distance, the less representative democracy becomes.

Democracy is not embedded in stone – as we have seen across countless examples across the globe.

The collapse of democracy doesn’t happen in a day

Technology and social networks, capable of spreading false news and influencing opinion through disinformation or illegally obtained personal data, are some of the most sophisticated forms of voter alienation and interference. We must confront head on any such threat.

The collapse of democracy doesn’t happen in a day, but through the slow erosion of the legal guarantees that balance power, the illusion of popular will and support of anti-democratic thinking, and the daily distancing of those in power from the voters.

In Albania, it is crucial that the Special Anti-Corruption Structure (SPAK) and local prosecutors are able to successfully indict every allegation of vote-buying or electoral corruption.

This election was an unprecedented contest, where the ruling party sought a third term, after a fierce period of clashes with the opposition. Despite the tensions, the tone of the election campaign was surprisingly softer. Credit should be given to opposition leader, Lulzim Basha, who presented another model of political antagonism during this campaign.

His rhetoric was largely based on electoral promises, rather than the personal denigration of his opponent, which has been the norm of political communication for a long time in Albania.

Good lessons can be drawn for all political parties in Albania

Prime Minister Edi Rama’s victory marked the first time in Albanian history that a prime minister has won three consecutive terms. His victory can be attributed to his management of the COVID-19 crisis and successful vaccination campaign, as well as to the energetic campaign to support reconstruction after the 6.4 magnitude earthquake of November 2020.

Another winning card for Prime Minister Rama may have been the launch of major infrastructure investments, including the opening of four airports and four ports, which will increase connectivity and develop tourism. The new infrastructure investments might have been more appealing to the electorate than repeated articulations about job increases, tax cuts or salary and pension growths – rhetoric commonly used in previous campaigns. However, the Albanian political culture still needs to deepen and sharpen electoral debates around political programmes in order to democratise the election process.

On the other hand, the traditional opposition abandoned the legitimate institutions, withdrawing from their parliamentary mandates in February 2019 amidst election manipulation scandals, and as such, did not participate in important country reforms. This act, coupled with the opposition’s non-participation in local government elections, weakened their centre of influence.

Good lessons can be drawn for all political parties in Albania: they must respect the rule of law, and if there are accusations of criminal acts such as vote-buying, the investigation process and the issuance of a court decision should be expected and respected.

Europeanisation … does not take place overnight, nor does it end with EU membership

Democracy is strengthened by fighting within democratic institutions through legitimate means. Therefore, we hope that even after this election the opposition will react differently and resolve its accusations of vote-buying through legal and institutional means, rather than choosing to dismiss election results and withdrawal from parliament.

Rama’s victory is also a mandate to continue state-building reforms, which are led by the European Union’s integration driving force. The main leitmotif of the Socialist Party’s campaign was the continuation of the justice reform launched in 2016 with strong support from the EU and the United States. Support for reform is also evidenced by the result of the Minister of Justice Etilda Gjonaj, who won more votes in her constituency than the two previous elections, while running under the banner of the Socialist Party for the first time. The same can be said for the massive support of Fatmir Xhafa, considered the father of the justice reform. Their presence in the parliament is a good indicator that justice reform will remain on the right track.

Europeanisation and the construction of a European culture does not take place overnight, nor does it end with EU membership, but is a process based on deep reforms, carried out with stern determination and above all, good will.

If Albanian politics overcome the extreme polarisations of the past, political parties will be able to cooperate, implement the EU integration reforms and come closer to their citizens’ expectations of an Albania that is closer to the EU.

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