The Price of Fear

Without the slightest understanding of the consequences of last Wednesday night, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini and EU enlargement commissioner Johannes Hahn exuberantly congratulated Prime Minister Edi Rama and opposition leader Lulzim Basha on “respond[ing] to their citizens’ expectations and show[ing] democratic maturity.”

“Democratic maturity.” There was nothing of this sort. And citizens “expected” nothing at all except the same old, same old.

Basha and Rama performed a cheap show for a myopic audience of unelected bureaucrats that wouldn’t recognize democracy if it hit them in the face.

The McAllister+ agreement has nothing to do with a concern for democracy. In fact, its effects on democracy in Albania and the political empowerment of the population will be detrimental, both in the short term and the long run.

A few days ago I argued that neither Rama nor Basha had any motivation to reach an agreement. I was clearly mistaken, because an agreement we now have. It turns out it was not a question of motivation.

In order to understand this puzzling question, we only have to consider Basha, who the day before the agreement unexpectedly and fully agreed to the McAllister+ proposal tabled by parachute negotiator Hoyt Brian Yee. We have seen such an unexpected move before, namely on February 18.

Before the opposition protest of February 18, which led to the permanent installation of the “Tent of Freedom” in front of the Prime Ministry, Lulzim Basha had been making tentative steps to reform his party and improve the party-internal democratic procedures, a perennial issue with Albanian political parties.

He was holding frequent meetings with activists from the youth wing of the party, the FRPD, and had announced that a large number of deputies on the candidate lists for the elections would be coming from the ranks of the FRPD.

Basha had also slowly changed the rhetoric of the party, admitting to mistakes of the previous democratic government while promising a democratization of the party, with internal elections for the candidate lists in several regions. This would have allowed him to flush out old, corrupted cadres, while infusing the party with new blood from the younger generation.

All these actions would have been the beginning of a reform of the PD that indeed would have shown “democratic maturity.” The PD might still have lost the elections, but at least Basha would have been able to work with a rejuvenated team and wage four years of effective opposition, and favourably contrast his rejuvenated, reformed, and democratized party with the top-down autocracy with which the PS is ruled.

It was not supposed to be. Basha suddenly turned 180 degrees and embarked on a protest and boycott that had little to do with his political actions in the months before, although based on his continued effort against drugs and crime in politics. It was an inconsistent move, which played into the hands of party loyalists and the old guard. Basha isn’t good at protesting. He is not good at screaming. But he bowed to internal pressure.

What he spoke out  has now been eclipsed. “Electronic voting” has been pushed to the next government’s agenda. “Decriminalization” will presumably be taken care of through extra checks (with international assistance) by the Central Election Commission. The elections will be postponed only 7 days.

Just like his decision to start the parliamentary boycott in February 18, the decision to accept the McAllister+ agreement on May 18 was a decision out of fear. Again, party-internal opposition against the election boycott and immense international pressure made him blink at the last moment. In response, Rama smelled an opportunity which led to an agreement that cost Rama nothing.

The opposition boycott did carry some potential in the sense that pushing it through the elections would have allowed Basha to reform his party outside of Parliament (once the old guard had lost all their seats), assemble an extra-parliamentary opposition, and effectively delegitimate an autocratic Rama government for four consecutive years.

Also, resisting the international pressure and truly showing that a deep reform of the Albanian political system is necessary, could have won over the many skeptical voices (including mine) that so far had refused to join his protest.

Basha wasted this opportunity to party reform and instead provided legitimacy and the aura of responsible politician to Rama, who of all politicians deserves it least.

Basha has for the foreseeable future weakened the credibility of extra-parliamentary forms of protests. By not following through his plans – the real party-internal reform and providing an actual alternative to the political status quo – Basha has also weakened an effective opposition for the next four years. Because of this we will all reap a deep, deep cynicism.