From: Genc Pollo
Comment: What Is the Real Challenge for Democracy in Albania?

Images of violence in and around the headquarters of the opposition Democratic Party of Albania could be seen on Saturday and prompted criticism. However, unpacking the context that led to this event is important for understanding  recent political developments in Albania.

The DP’s electoral defeat in the April 25, 2021 general elections was the last uninterrupted election debacle under eight years of Basha’s chairmanship. This period was also marred by controversial, contested and consequential decisions by Basha to abandon Parliament and boycott local elections in 2019. Without these decisions, we could have seen a change of government at the ballot box on 25 April. Basha has never regretted his decisions, let alone apologized for them. 

In the wake of the April 25, 2021 elections, there was a feeling of malaise, resignation and inertia among party members and functionaries, along with passive rejection of Basha’s leadership. This fortunately started to change last fall with former chairman (and former President and PM) Berisha launching a tour to meet with his grassroot supporters and openly discuss the situation within the party and in the country. 

The May 2021 designation by the US State Department of Mr. Berisha as “not eligible for entry in the US”  was seen by most (including Basha) as inappropriate, incommensurate, selective, party politically motivated and unjustified. However Basha decided on his own, under US diplomatic pressure, to expel Mr. Berisha from the DP parliamentary group instead of putting it to a vote in the party council as required by the party statutes. Basha claimed the US’s move was wrong but he had to comply in order to preserve the DP’s relationship with the US administration. This didn’t improve his standing as party leader. As Mr. Berisha vowed to keep out the DP of the issue of his designation by the US, and thus this matter ought to be kept separate.

A key development in this saga was that, after strictly following the party statute, a significant majority of the delegates of the DP’s National Assembly (5,200 of its 7647 delegates, or 68%) called an extraordinary meeting of the party’s assembly. Under article 43/2 of the DP’s statutes, the national assembly can be convened by a request of 1/4 of its delegates or 1/4 of party membership. Basha steadily refused to consider the delegates’ petition which was formally submitted in writing to his party headquarters and tried to procedurally hamper it. 

However, following the statutory rules, the extraordinary party meeting was convened on December 11, with roughly 4,935  delegates present (or 65% of them) in Tirana’s main stadium (I also participated in the meeting). The DP national assembly decided by secret ballot and with 4,446 votes (or 99% of the votes cast) to remove Basha and to entrust the party management to a Provisional Committee until the regular party national assembly of March 22, 2022. 

Basha’s removal was put to a party-wide referendum on December 18; 43,879 party members turned out to vote of which 43,385 or 98,8% confirmed the removal. 

Unfortunately Basha refused to accept reality and the will of his party. He first tried to disband the DP Women and Youth organizations which had expressed support for convening the party’s national assembly. As the DP Women & Youth organizations are EPP members both the EPP Women & Students (EDS) protested and called on Basha to stop. A letter by EPP MEPs suggesting that Basha recognize the party’s national assembly and members’ vote has been circulated. 

Basha called  a gathering on December 18, in a hall with 1,958 seats pretending it was the party’s national assembly (sic!). He couldn’t explain how the hall could house the required minimal quorum (50% plus one) of 3,824 delegates. 

In another sad event, last week, Basha shut down DP newspaper’s “Rilindja Demokratike” on its 31st anniversary. “Rilindja Demokratike” was Albania’s first free newspaper after Communism.

Procedures are underway for returning the DP headquarters and legal representation to the legitimate Provisional Committee. Resistance to this, as we are seeing by a very small group of former party officials around Basha, is undemocratic, unlawful and counterproductive. 

However the courts are very influenced by the Socialist  government also due to the ongoing vetting process. The ruling party has every interest to keep Basha’s weak factions the official opposition. This also explains why the riot police saved the day for Basha, allowing him to keep the party HQ.

A key issue for Albania’s democratic development is the need for a solid and constructive opposition to keep in check an increasingly corrupt and autocratic government.

Basha, with no support from PD’s grassroot membership and abysmal values in opinion polls, is not the person for it. Unprincipled voting in support of problematic government measures in the recent weeks, questionable joint initiatives with the government to amend the Constitution and allegations of murky commercial interests have further delegitimized Basha. 

The DP Provisional Committee faces a daunting challenge of rebuilding a credible opposition; it should strive to be seen by the public as a viable alternative to power. In contrast to other countries in the region, post-Communist Albania has developed a bipartisan political landscape around the Democratic and Socialist parties which rotate in government and opposition. A third force isn’t in the pipeline. 

While the stark images on Saturday caught the national and some European attention, the real struggle in the country is about preventing the stranglehold of a kleptocratic regime which has centralized power (and economy & media) and has harnessed a well oiled international lobbying network.

Genc Pollo
Former Minister and MP of the Democratic Party