Albania's Local Elections: A Test of Stability and Democracy
Local elections in Albania on 1 October 2000 will mark the first test of popular support for the ruling Socialist-led coalition since it came to power following the violent uprising in 1997. The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), whose Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) will be leading the monitoring effort, deems these elections to be of critical importance. Albania’s electoral process has traditionally been bedevilled by the same handicaps encountered in most other institutional areas: namely, inadequate legislation, capacity deficiencies, politicisation of the process, and lack of all round political support. It is vitally important for Albania's democracy and international reputation that this year's elections do not repeat the mistakes of the recent past.
There is, however, growing concern about political tension in the run-up to the elections, due to increasing political polarisation and the threat of non-participation by the main opposition party. Despite calls from international organisations to avoid extreme confrontation, the country's two main parties – the governing Socialist Party (SP) chaired by former premier, Fatos Nano, and the main opposition Democratic Party (DP) led by former president, Sali Berisha – have opened the debate with characteristically bitter polemics. Three years after he was forced from power in July 1997 in an armed rebellion in which more than 2,000 people were killed, Berisha, now 53, is back on the electoral campaign trail. Since losing power, he has waged a relentless campaign against his Socialist opponents, whom he accuses of rampant corruption, and has repeatedly called for early parliamentary elections. The last local elections were in October 1996 and resulted in a sweeping victory for Berisha's Democratic Party. As a result, the DP dominates local government with 80 per cent control over city and district councils and therefore has the most to lose in the polls. In a remark that reveals the importance of the elections for the DP, Berisha claims the poll will be “the most contested elections in the history of Albania because the government has demonstrated that it drew up the law to manipulate them.”
A Council of Europe (CoE) resolution at the end of June declared that “the holding of elections in conformity with the new electoral law, in order for them to be fair and for their outcome to be acceptable to all the political parties, is a condition that Albania must meet, given all the promises made before it was accepted into the CoE in July 1995.” This is as much a reference to Berisha as it is to the current government since it was under Berisha's administration that Albania joined the CoE. The persistence of polarisation and confrontation in Albanian political life is manifested by deep divisions within both major parties. The Socialists are divided between supporters of SP chairman Fatos Nano, and the younger element centred around Premier Ilir Meta and former premier Pandeli Majko. Whilst the Socialists are trying to paper over the cracks in order to present a united front to the electorate, the Democrat leadership has basically ignored its breakaway reformist faction, the Democratic Reform Movement (DPRM), now generally referred to as the “Young Reformers.” Both main parties also have problems with their coalition partners. The outcome of the elections is likely to be very close between the two major parties and the results are almost certain to be contested.
Despite persistent threats to boycott the entire procedure, the Democrats will most probably take part in the elections but continue to boycott the Central Election Committee (CEC) and not recognise the results announced by the CEC because they believe it is biased in favour of the Socialists. The conduct of the elections and the willingness of the main parties to abide by their outcome will be seen as a measure of the level of political maturity Albania has reached and a valuable indicator that the country is progressing in the right direction. A successful electoral process would enhance regional stability and advance Albania’s candidacy for increased integration into European structures. A serious monitoring effort by NGOs and OSCE governments would raise the prospects for a democratic outcome.