From: Alice Taylor
31 Years after Communism, Albanians Call for Deliberative Democracy

Albania’s almost 50-years of authoritarian rule ended in 1991, but since then, the road to democracy has been less than smooth, with citizens’ now calling for more say in how the country is run, in a nod to European deliberative democracy efforts.

An EU membership hopeful, Albania is considered a hybrid regime according to Freedom House, but according to a new report from the Albanian Institute for Democracy and Mediation (IDM) in collaboration with the Centre for Deliberative Democracy at Stanford University, the electorate wants more democratic progress.

The poll consulted 1200 randomly selected Albanians on seven topics, including parliament, voting, democracy, electoral reform, the diaspora, economic migration, and climate change. Following the initial poll, 110 randomly selected participants were involved in an additional deliberation process.

Over half of those surveyed said the current electoral system does not reflect the people’s will, 69% want referendums on controversial matters, and some 40% do not trust the country’s parliament.

Gjergji Vurmo, IDM’s programme director and a senior researcher on governance, EU enlargement, and security, said this is due to the misuse of institutions and processes during communism and over the last 30 years for party, political, and personal gain.

“I believe citizens’ distrust is a sort of “defence mechanism” from such captured institutions. Consequently, citizens have never felt state institutions as something that derives from their will and that serve the people,” he told Exit.

This has resulted in an ‘us versus them’ mentality where citizens believe institutions do not serve their needs.

To implement even a fraction of citizens’ wishes as per the survey, a significant amount of political will would be needed. But Vurmo is not confident this exists in Albania at the moment.

“There is no political will to do that, no doubt. This is how one can explain why the ‘diaspora vote’ has been dragged for so long or why electoral reform has happened behind closed doors with few people and without consulting the public,” he adds.

Rather, citizen engagement should be driven by real, strong and constant public pressure, not just endowed upon the public when political actors feel like it.

Indeed, Albania has been through eight electoral reforms in 30 years and has experienced majoritarian, proportional, and mixed systems, currently opting for the regional proportional system. Nearly 68% support a transition to another system, such as a pure majority, hoping it would make it harder to buy votes or overburden lists with unqualified candidates.

The results also found that a third did not know how the electoral system works or how MPs are elected. Another third said they felt MPs were out of touch with the electorate and did not understand their concerns.

But the lack of understanding and trust goes beyond parliament. Respondents also felt there was a lack of transparency in the democracy of political parties, calling for statutes and structures to be published online. They also raised concerns over funding and the fact that parties were built around their leaders, rather than any meaningful structure. 

This, the results found, leads to a lack of pluralism and poor behaviour from political leaders with little in the way of accountability.

Citizen trust is integral

The results of the Albanian poll were published just a couple of days before the EU’s deliberative democracy experiment, the Council on the Future of Europe concluded. When asked if he considers such models effective, Vurmo explained that in his experience, empowering citizens to be involved produces better, more genuine outcomes.

“When people trust the process (of consultation or deliberation) they engage more profoundly in it because they feel ownership over the process and especially over the outcome,” he said, lamenting that public consultations in Albania are often selective with the content and participants, additionally not guaranteeing reflection on citizens’ feedback.

Secondly, the process revealed that deliberation is key when consulting citizens rather than adopting a formal top-down approach.

“On more than half of statements, citizens who went through the deliberation process showed significant differences in attitudes and support level compared to those who did not access such information”, he concluded.

In January 2022, the Albanian government decided to ask for the public’s advice on several of what it considers crucial policies. Twelve questions relating to geopolitics, the judiciary, the economy, and even legalising medical cannabis were posed via an online site to citizens. Prime Minister Edi Rama said the process would be transparent, but critics said they should have consulted citizens on what is important to them.

Vurmo is also cynical as while he supports deliberative democracy, he says this is not the way to go about it.

“This is precisely what damages consultation processes and casts doubts and distrust in the minds of citizens. The national consultation was a top-down process which included questions we don’t know are important to citizens.”

He added, “the questions were highly problematic and the answers extremely limited and closed,” and said that “if we want to strengthen informed consultation processes and engagement of citizens in decision-making we need to avoid instruments which are used only to justify already made decisions.”

This approach could also be critiqued as the poll found that 40% of participants had no trust in parliament and think its role is ineffective and should be strengthened. Almost 82% believe that the competences of independent institutions should be strengthened to scrutinise the government and assembly. 

Clear call for change

One of the clearest results of the process is the demand for more say in decision making processes. Almost 69% believe referendums should be used more widely, while over 70% said there should be online petitions with digital voter identification as a way to influence the legislative process.

It is clear from the results that citizens do not believe they have any influence on the legislative process, nor do they feel any connection with their elected representatives. But will these fears fall on deaf ears?

Vurmo explains they plan to present their findings to parliament, committees, parties, the electoral reform commission, and other institutions over the next week.

“We hope there will be engagement,” he concludes.