Can this weekend’s local elections be the wedge that loosens Albania’s political gridlock?by S. Adam Cardais 10 May 2011
TIRANA | Like many Albanians, Gjergji Filipi has never had any lofty illusions about his country's leadership. But when a local broadcaster aired a video of a ruling coalition minister trying to interfere in a major energy tender, he joined the thousands of other Albanians who assembled outside the prime minister's office on 21 January to protest the government.
That the government's Republican Guard fired on the demonstrators, killing four, only hardened Filipi's resolve for political change. He just had another opportunity for dissent – only this time through the ballot, in Albania's 8 May local elections.
"That’s why I'm voting – my vote is a protest vote," Filipi said from his office at the Agenda Institute think tank, where he is research director.
As Albania's first vote since the contested 2009 general elections that cast the country into two years of political gridlock between the ruling Democrats and opposition Socialists, Sunday's polls were about more than choosing municipal mayors and city council members. To many Albanians, they were a referendum on national leadership that revealed mounting dissatisfaction with the government of Sali Berisha, who has been prime minister since 2005, and an increasingly tense and politicized climate where even civic leaders like Filipi are taking a public stand.
At press time, election officials had just begun to count ballots after a day of voting that, preliminarily, appeared to boast high turnout. Though each side declared victory by Monday morning, the official results won't be known for several days. The vote was relatively peaceful, with a few isolated incidents of violence against election officials and media following a combustible four months since the January protests.
Berisha, leader of the Democrats, called the vote "the best elections ever held" in Albania. While Socialist leader Edi Rama, who is also the mayor of Tirana, suggested that the vote did not meet international standards.
Some 5,000 foreign and domestic observers monitored the election, which is seen internationally as a key test of Albanian democracy as the impoverished, former communist country pursues European Union membership. Albania’s per capita GDP is one-tenth of Germany's, according to the World Bank, and the country is still struggling to consolidate a democratic transition that began two decades ago.
At a polling station in Fier, southern Albania, the early hours of voting progressed smoothly, if in Balkan fashion with much shouting and arm waving. Later in the morning, local observers noted instances of voter intimidation and other procedural irregularities.
On 9 May, the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights international monitoring team announced its preliminary assessment, calling the vote competitive and transparent while noting that the political parties had continued to abuse their position of power during the election campaign. The Democrats, the team noted, placed substantial pressure on public employees and others to support the party. Procedural problems were also observed, including the late opening of many polling stations and a relatively slow vote count.
The OSCE’s assessment, including its final report in two months, is likely to greatly influence how Albanians perceive the vote. In 2009, the Socialists contested the general elections on allegations of vote rigging by the Democrats, and international observers also noted significant polling problems. The opposition does not recognize Berisha's coalition, and governance has effectively ground to a halt.
Thus, Sunday's election was more about determining which party has a mandate to govern Albania than unemployment, the economy, or other traditional campaign issues. For many, it was also a chance to voice opposition to the existing leadership.
Vilma Hasula, 20, wouldn't say who got her vote in Tirana – only that Albania needed a change in leadership. While skeptical of both parties generally, Hasula said that in the Democrats’ years in power they have made little progress on fundamental problems such as infrastructure. Albania's roads are dilapidated, electricity supply is unstable, and many streets in Tirana are unnamed, she said.
"We live here, and we feel the problems," Hasula said. "Our families suffer, and we [young people] do too."
Many people are also furious with how the government handled the January protests. The shootings and lack of what many Albanians perceive as a legitimate investigation – only one of the guards remains in custody – have only further undermined the government's credibility. Even coalition loyalists are deeply disappointed by the events of 21 January, said Albana Kulari of the New Epoch Youth Center in Fier, which has organized local "get out the vote" campaigns.
She added that the Democrats have shown zero leadership in investigating the shootings: "Three months and there's nothing. [The government is] just encouraging people to take revenge."
Kulari's comment is an oblique reference to the political violence of the month-long pre-election campaign. Throughout April and early May clashes between Democrat and Socialist supporters escalated from small street fights to the bombing of the house of an opposition candidate in Tirana, and police established a visible presence throughout the capital in the days before the vote, especially at campaign events.
The fighting is also a reminder that the Democrats have a loyal base, and that, despite growing dissatisfaction with their leadership, the party could do well in the elections. Thousands of supporters crowded Tirana's Mother Teresa Square 6 May for the final campaign event of Lulzim Basha, the Democrats' challenger to Rama for mayor of Tirana, waving party flags and cheering their candidate. Early results showed the Tirana mayoral race in a virtual dead heat.
In the overall vote, if the Socialists win, they will almost certainly reassert that the 2009 polls were fraudulent and call for early general elections, according to one political analyst. But this would be political theater, he added, because the EU will vigorously oppose anything that risks further political upheaval in Albania, and leaders don't want to alienate Brussels.
Most important, many say, is that the vote be judged free and fair. Any evidence of electoral fraud, especially by the Democrats, could lead to more unrest.
For his part, Filipi said, he will respect the results, as long as the elections are judged legitimate. Kulari echoed his point, saying her highest hope was for an uncontested result to break the political gridlock.
Though neither was very optimistic that the old guard leaders, many of whom grew up under Albania's extreme form of communism, could govern together, decisive result or not.
"The [communist] experiment went too far in Albania," Filipi said. "The stains of that are still here. There is no spirit of constructive cooperation."