Since January of this year, publications of leaked wiretaps, ongoing protests, tear gas, cancellations of elections, and threats to impeach the President have dominated the tumultuous landscape of Albanian politics.
As the June 30th local elections draw closer, tensions are running high as the President has cancelled them, whilst the government claims they will still take place. During this political standoff, leaked wiretaps are being published that clearly evidence vote buying and election rigging carried out by the Socialist Party, in collusion with criminal gangs, prior to the 2017 general elections.
Here is a condensed guide to the current Electiongate scandal and the ensuing political crisis.
On 5 June, German newspaper ‘Bild” published a series of wiretapped conversations between members of the government and socialist party, and members of a criminal gang in Durrës. Conversations took place between the Mayor Vangjush Dako and the boss of an international drug trafficking organisations, Astrit Avdylaj. The taps show how tactics such as vote buying, voter intimidation, and funding of the SP campaign were all coordinated between members of the SP and criminals. Transcripts of these wiretaps were originally published by BIRN and Voice of America in January, but it was Bild that published the recordings themselves for the first time.
On 10 June, moments before another large-scale anti-government protest, President Meta cancelled the upcoming local elections. He stated that allowing the elections to go ahead with one party, no opposition, a dysfunctional constitutional court, and increasing protests would put the country at risk. Similar decisions were made by former Presidents in 2007 and 2017. Any challenge to the decision must be lodged in the Constitutional Court, which is currently and for the foreseeable future, defunct.
Rama then stated that the elections would continue in direct contravention of the Presidential Decree. He also stated that he would take steps to impeach the President and remove him from office. His defiance was echoed by party members who continued to campaign for the upcoming elections, as well as to post on social media that the elections would still take place. Rama’s Socialist Party started the procedure to remove the President.
Days later, Meta sent a letter to the OSCE where he explained that Rama’s attempts to ignore the presidential decree and to continue with the elections would be illegal, as well as null and void. He added that any attempt to hold illegal elections would “further worsen the political crisis in Albania”.
Despite failing to file any charges against anyone identified in the wiretaps, prosecutors in Tirana filed criminal charges against opposition leader, Lulzim Basha on 13 June. The charges stemmed from 2017 and concern allegations that a Russian-controlled offshore company had sponsored the PD lobbying in the US with the aim of destabilising Albania. Basha argued that the summons for him were not legal as the prosecutors failed to list “a summary of the evidence resulting from the investigation”. The prosecutors said that their summons did comply with the law and Basha was informed if he did not appear, he would be taken with force. Basha denies any wrongdoing and investigations carried out in the US did not find evidence of any wrongdoing or illegality. He claims the charges are designed to take attention away from the Electiongate scandal.
The first batch of wiretaps from this week deals with the vote-buying activities of the Socialist Party in Dibër. Arben Keshi, who earlier worked for the police and right after the elections became a Chief at a State Police in Bulqizë, is heard on the tapes updating Rama. He speaks of being “within expectations” in terms of results and Rama asks him if he has “reached the objective”. The second wiretap features SP MP Artan Gaci, congratulating Keshi on behalf of Rama for the electoral results in the area. Gaci can be heard saying that Rama described Keshi as “the man” and as being responsible for fixing and being responsible for the positive outcome for the SP. The tapes also evidenced how blackmail, intimidation, vote buying with cash, and threats against employment were used in the area to secure votes.
Rama then announced that he would sue the German journalist Peter Tiede who published the wiretaps. Whilst the PM confirmed he was indeed speaking on the wiretaps and said that he would have the conversation again, he called their publication a “desperate attempt to manipulate people and tarnish Albania”. He failed to detail any grounds on which he would take legal action against the journalist.
After sitting on the wiretaps for almost three years and not making a single arrest, the Serious Crimes Prosecution Office initiated an investigation into the leaking of the wiretaps. Rather than pursuing the serious crimes of election rigging, corruption, blackmail, and many more, instead the prosecution decided to focus on who, and how the tapes were leaked.
In the second batch of wiretaps released this week, Minister Damian Gjiknuri, MP Xhemal Qefalia, Police Chief of Dibër Robert Aga, and gangster Imer Lala are caught discussing vote buying. They also discuss collecting identity cards of opposition party supporters, to prevent them from taking part in the elections. Aga was also congratulated on his ability to manipulate elections and Lala boasted about having received favours and praise from “The Man”, possibly meaning Rama, after the latter allegedly received him in his office following the elections.
Since the election was cancelled, a total of 18 opposition led municipalities have refused to allow preparations for elections to take place. In addition to this, opposition supporters have blocked the setting up of polling stations as well as been involved in removing polling station materials and scuffles with central government authorities. In some locations, the Albanian state police (on orders from the government) have faced off with Municipal police (on orders from opposition-led municipalities). As a result, many have been arrested and Rama has demanded that the Penal Code is amended to enforce a 10-year ban on anyone who is caught disrupting the elections, from leaving the country.
Today (Friday 21st, at 8PM), another large-scale protest is scheduled to take place in Tirana, organised by the opposition.