Local elections in Albania - a hard test

Remzi LANI

TUE, 12 SEP 2000

Tirana, September 5, 2000 - In the Balkan electoral schedule for this fall, local elections in Albania figure prominently, but the international community hasn't shown much interest for them simply because it is preoccupied with the largest and most delicate hotbeds in the region. A recently published article in "The Economist", which was dedicated to exhaustive analysis of elections in Kosovo, Serbia, Bosnia and Macedonia, did not even mention local elections in Albania. It is clear that the Albanian local elections do not carry so much weight in the Balkan and international frameworks as those in the neighbouring countries, but it is equally clear that the local elections scheduled for October 1, will be valuable as an important test and very difficult challenge for the young Albanian democracy.

The October elections will be the third elections in a row for the local authorities in Albania since the toppling of the communist regime ten years ago. At the first local elections, held in July 1992, only three months after Berisha-led anti-communist opposition came into power, the socialist opposition quite unexpectedly succeeded in securing majority of votes for local authorities.

At that time, this result was commented not as a victory of socialists (former communists), but as an endeavour on the part of the Albanians to restrain the Right in power, which already then showed first signs of authoritarian arrogance. Be that as it may, the defeat was marginal and Democrats managed to win in Tirana and largest cities all over the country.

The second voting for the local authorities in Albania was organised in October 1996, just a few months after much criticised elections of May that same year. The elections were organised at the time the pyramid investment scheme flourished, so that it would not be mistaken to say that the Albanians voted more at windows and cashier's desks of financial pyramids then at polling places. The Democratic Party which was in power, won 87 percent of communes and cities, and the result was proclaimed as the confirmation of the results of May general elections. Local elections were internationally recognised despite OHDIR's withdrawal from the monitoring mission, as the Albanian Government demanded that the number of observers be limited. Several months later the country plunged deep into the pyramidal scheme crisis.

October 1, 2000 will be the first time that local elections are held before the general ones. The last local elections in Albania were held several months after the parliamentary elections, which gave quite an advantage to the ruling Democrats. The fact that this time the local elections are held several month before parliamentary ones, gives them the value of a true test. It is expected that the next general elections will be held next year.

October 1, will be a multiple test in several ways: first, this will be a test of the political forces and of the support they enjoy. In a country in which there are no public opinion polls, or more precisely, where they cannot be conducted because of the aggressive political surrounding, the results that will come out of ballot-boxes are expected to show how much is each of them worth.

This is especially true of the two major political parties which are faced with a major test. In a sense they will be valued as a party in power and as an opposition party. The Socialist have the central power and control more than two thirds of seats in Parliament, while the Democrats control over two thirds of local authorities. Neither side can escape the ruling to be passed at voting, no matter how hard they try to put the ball in the other side's court. It seems that the test of October 1, will be at the expense of the small parties which are not expected to play any significant role in the final balance. It seems that the Albanian political scene is heading towards political dualism.

The Socialist and Democrats are dominating this scene and gradually abandoning every regard for the small parties. The former President Berisha no longer appears before the press in the company of a team of right party representatives which praise everything he does, while in his speech at the start of his electoral campaign former Prime Minister Nano did not forget to warn his small capricious allies that the times of decorative coalitions will end on October 1.

It seems that the small parties will be put to a survival test. Apart from the Party of Human Rights, which is representing ethnic minorities, all other small parties, including the divided monarchists, are risking to be disregarded. That sounds paradoxical under conditions when at least 40 percent of the Albanian electorate falls into the category of uncommitted voters, who suspiciously regard both the Democrats, as well as Socialists. However, not one small party has managed to beat the centre of the political centre.

Small parties served more like hangers-on of larger ones and paid for their mistakes, failing to create their own identity. Nevertheless, the emergence of a new third political force, which is more necessary than ever, now seems absolutely impossible. Under such conditions, lower than usual turnover of voters can be expected, but not below 60 percent, which means that the difference between the winner and the loser is not expected to be drastic. The next elections will undoubtedly be a test for the Government too, regarding its popularity, and even perhaps its authority. If the electoral campaign progresses peacefully, without incidents, and if voting on October 1 proceeds without any problems, that would confirm that the Government actually has control in the country. During his visit to Washington, the pragmatic Prime Minister Meta stated that his was more interested in the manner in which the elections would proceed than in their results.

Irrespective of the results after October 1, no significant changes in the running of the country till the next general elections can be expected. If Socialists get confirmed as winners in their campaign without any small allies, it is quite possible that Nano will demand some cabinet changes which could cause further distancing from the allies from small parties and rapprochement with figures from the civil society. No matter whether things will change or not, it is expected for Meta's Cabinet to pursue the course of further stabilisation of the situation in the country in this very difficult electoral year.

If the Democrats win, they would probably demand the date of parliamentary elections to be moved forward, which could anyway be held three or four months earlier. The Democrats said that in case of victory they would demand the creation of a technical Government in order to prepare for the general elections. That would happen only if the Socialist are heavily beaten, which is highly unlikely.

The next elections are also a test for all the Albanians, Socialists and Democrats alike, dependent and independent ones, conservatives and liberals. Albania is the only young former communist democracy which did not pass the test of regular elections and normal rotation of power, after the toppling of communism. The last electoral processes were disputed with or without reason, by those who were declared losers.

A very simple and clear question is raised: whether the Albanians are capable of peacefully voting, counting votes without too much noise, declaring a winner without firing arms and after that shaking hands? If that is possible, then everyone is a winner. If not, then everyone loses.

There is a fear of incidents that may break out during campaign, and they were not lacking till now. During a rather dubious incident some armed men threatened Vice-President of Parliament and of the Democratic Party, Ms.Jozefina Topalli, after a pre-election rally in the south of Albania. However, there is also fear of the day after, the day after the results are declared.

In his speech on the first day of his electoral campaign, opposition leader Berisha said that in case of the rigging of elections country would be faced with the strongest protests ever seen. Berisha refused to recognise the Electoral Code, Central Electoral Commission, harshly criticised OSCE and its monitors, but also ruled out the possibility of his party boycotting the elections.

Berisha, who could never get reconciled with the loss of power in 1997, is actually faced with a personal challenge. Victory at October elections would be a major step in his swift return to power. Defeat would be a fatal blow for him and would encourage his marginalised opponents within his party. On the other hand, disputing the results recognised by the international observers would certainly be the worst possible choice as that would mean the continuation of the present status quo.

The fragile Albanian democracy equally needs a democratic Government, as well as a democratic opposition. More than opposing votes, as was the case till now (which reflects the Balkan spite), it now needs votes for or pro (which would reflect a choice of one of the two alternatives).

Finally, the October elections are also a sort of test for the international community where it would be able to prove or disapprove policy that it had pursued in a small Balkan country which was a partner, but also a constant problem for the West.

Western countries, especially the States, have supported the current Government without any hesitation, especially the new class of Albanian politicians. Prime Minister Meta was invited to the USA by State Secretary Albright who did not hide her support for him. He is expected to pay a visit to Germany during this pre-election period.

For his part, it seems that Berisha has placed all his hopes on the votes of the Albanians. In his speeches he mentioned "unappointed governors", implying that they could be powerful people from the West, like the American or OSCE Ambassadors in Tirana. Pro-Berisha papers did not spare criticism addressed to representatives of international institutions, accusing them of siding with the Government in the pre-election process.

If nothing else, voting on October 1, will show one thing: Whether the Albanians are sensitive of the international factor or has that sensitiveness decreased? The war in Kosovo a kind of pro-American and, at the same time, pro-Western mythology, has started flourishing here, but it seems that although still topical, Kosovo is not used as a pre-election trump card in Albania.

In this difficult electoral challenge, the Albanians will not be the only ones who will find themselves on the opposing sides. So will all other Balkan nations who will vote this fall. Will they cut the Gordian knot or, perhaps, entangle it even more? We can only wait and hope.

Original article