This weekend we witnessed two unconvincing performances by the two main political antagonists in the Albanian political arena. On Saturday, Democratic Party leader Lulzim Basha led a protest of the opposition, marred by fireworks, molotov cocktails, and police violence without offering a single policy proposal, while the day after Prime Minister Edi Rama, once again trotted out his “contract with the people” that he cannot possibly break by resigning.
Both of them have painted themselves into their own corner, but only for Basha this is a vital problem.
Prime Minister Rama continues to have the reluctant support of the international community, unwilling to cause more instability on the Balkans than strictly necessary. He also doesn’t seem to receive too much pushback for the (unconstitutionally) empty parliament, where he has been slowly assembling a “shadow opposition” that might even provide him enough votes to pass legislation that needs a qualified majority. In any case, that is what EU Ambassador Luigi Soreca appears to think when he muses about the swift implementation of an electoral reform.
At the same time, the Socialist Party is ramping up its preparations for the local elections, so far boycotted by the opposition, as if nothing has happened, while OSCE Ambassador Bernd Borchardt refused to rule out certifying the elections, even if the opposition continued its boycott. In short, the opposition’s actions and protests have so far not influenced Rama’s power base, nor his prospects of gaining a large majority in June.
The stakes for the opposition, and in particular the leader of the Democratic Party, are much higher. Neither Basha nor the former MPs have any official seat at the table, and the visits from foreign diplomats have become mere courtesy visits.
The entire idea of abandoning Parliament was to visit the country and draft up a new vision for Albania, but unfortunately, very little of such a new vision has materialized. Slogans such as “We want Albania like the rest of Europe” and “Rama go!” are throwbacks to previous anti-government protests in the 1990s and and the early 2000s and offer very little to be for. Moreover, the only insistent demand of the opposition has been the removal of Rama from office and installment of a transitory government without any further idea of how that would work out legally or in practice.
The current Albanian legal framework offers no possibility of negotiating a transitory government with an extraparliamentary opposition, even if Rama were to resign. Such a transitory government should be determined by a parliamentary consensus. If the opposition imagines something of a rehash of the McAllister+ agreement from 2017, it should be reminded that the OSCE-ODIHR heavily criticized the arrangement, which violated several parts of the Electoral Code. A further agreement negotiated between Rama and Basha would only further erode the rule of law in Albania and would affirm the dangerous precedent of the McAllister+ agreement; namely that politics trumps rule of law.
Then there is the practical issue of Rama resigning. Even if he were to resign as Prime Minister, he would still be the head of the Socialist Party and, as a result, the main negotiator at the table for any transitory government. He would still be the person to which most PS politicians and supporters would feel personally beholden, and it is unlikely that Basha will command such a popular support that they might switch allegiance.
This is where Basha’s main problem lies: he demands Rama’s resignation from a position of relative weakness. Some of his supporters may throw molotov cocktails, but they won’t be able to topple the government – unless he gives his supporters and the Albanian citizens something to fight for. And this means, quite simply, actual policy proposals that will markedly improve the lives of Albanians if they were enacted.
So far, most of the plans the PD presented amounted to opening the state wallet and handing out money through subsidies or tax cuts. But “more money” is not a convincing argument to make, especially if it’s the only one.
What Albania needs is a visionary plan to shift the economy from an oligarchic system floating on illegal criminal money laundered through real estate to an economy that is truly built on the riches and possibilities Albania has to offer in terms of resources, agriculture, and tourism. Threatening to cancel all the concession contracts does not only risk enormous costs to the Albanian public in international arbitrage; it also does not solve any of the underlying problems: energy generation, waste management, healthcare, and security.
On other large reforms we have heard no input from the opposition during any of its rallies. Where is the impassioned defense of the rule of law, severely threatened by a justice reform that has run off the rails? Where are the proposals for an electoral reform that truly envisions to empower the Albanian electorate to choose their own representatives and constrain the influence of criminal money? Where are the proposals on infrastructure, on emigration, on foreign policy?
The cabinet of Rama is filled with ignoramuses and amateurs, but if the opposition will not promote any alternatives, they will de facto determine the debate. Is it really so difficult to find someone with a more intelligent perspective on foreign affairs than Gent Cakaj? Can’t they find no one with an actual ability to unfold a masterplan for the university other that could better Besa Shahini? And what about culture and heritage? Is it really so difficult to be less invisible than Anila Denaj?
Only with a discourse that inspires hope and trust in those who are not already PD supporters, only with plans that will be able to attract PS voters from across the aisle, Lulzim Basha’s attempt to change Albanian politics may be successful.
The recent example of Turkey has shown that even a complete control over the election process could not have staved off Erdoğan’s electoral defeat in Turkey. Even though they were arrested and thrown in jail, even though every opposition newspaper was closed, even though Erdoğan’s party commanded the entire political process, still the united opposition was able to make a fist and win in all the major Turkish municipalities. They didn’t win because of daily protests with molotov cocktails and the chant “Erdoğan go!”
Such an election victory – which, after all, is the only victory that should count – requires smart alliances, a political program, and an actual vision.
Albania is tired of Rama, there is no doubt there. But unless the opposition truly wants to make a difference and no longer offers the same old same old, the government wouldn’t change, even if Rama left.