WASHINGTON - The United States and the European Union are urging Albania’s leaders to set aside their differences and move forward toward establishing a stable democracy after elections Sunday that gave the ruling Socialist Party a third consecutive mandate.
Prime Minister Edi Rama’s party is the first to achieve the feat since the collapse of communism more than three decades ago. It secured 74 out of 140 seats in Parliament, more than enough to govern without coalition partners, if it chooses to do so.
However, the main opposition Democratic Party has not yet accepted the results, which follow a heated and occasionally violent campaign. What comes next may determine whether Albania can move forward toward becoming a full-fledged democracy and integrate in the European Union.
The United States — an ally and strong supporter of reforms in the country — recognized Rama’s win and called for the results to be respected.
“The U.S. congratulates the people of Albania on their recent elections. We look forward to continuing our close partnership with Prime Minister Rama and commend the opposition's strong campaign. Respect for the results of legitimate elections strengthens Albania's democracy,” State Department spokesperson Ned Price tweeted on Wednesday.
Damon Wilson, executive vice president at the Atlantic Council in Washington, said the United States and the EU seem to be on the same page.
“I think the message that you're hearing from Washington, Brussels, is let's accept these results as they are confirmed by the Central Election Commission. Let's play your democratic roles and parts expected in a modern European, a parliamentary democracy,” he told VOA.
Rama declared victory and thanked party supporters at a rally in the capital, Tirana, on Tuesday, saying, “This was the most difficult, greatest and the most beautiful victory of the Socialist Party of Albania.”
He campaigned on promises to boost tourism, energy and infrastructure projects, among other things, and waved off criticism on a weak scorecard, saying back-to-back crises of a deadly earthquake in November 2019 and the coronavirus pandemic had hampered his program.
While Lulzim Basha, head of the right-wing opposition Democrats, conceded that his party had received fewer votes than the Socialist rivals, he has so far stopped short of acknowledging the results as legitimate.
“The election had nothing to do with democracy. We entered this battle not with a political opponent but with a regime that did the utmost to destroy a fair electoral race," he said.
He is now under pressure from prominent members of his party to step down.
Improved elections, but problems remain
Observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe noted improvements over past electoral contests, but with qualifications.
“The Albanian parliamentary elections were characterized by a lively and inclusive campaign, thanks to a legal framework that helped ensure respect of fundamental freedoms,” said an OSCE preliminary report. “At the same time, the campaign saw authorities taking advantage of public office and allegations of pervasive vote-buying.”
Daniel Serwer of Johns Hopkins University said this election seemed “better than some in Albania's past.”
He said he is concerned about the allegations of vote-buying but added that is a “common problem in transitional democracies.”
“The abuse of incumbency seems to me to be a much more profound criticism,” he added. “And we must somehow avoid capture of the state by political forces. And especially when you elect the same prime minister three times in a row, there's a tendency for state capture to solidify a little bit.”
There were some serious issues in the days leading up to the election. A news site broke the news that a database with the personal data of over 900,000 Albanians might be in the hands of party officials. The database reportedly could have come only from a government agency.
And a bitter political fight turned deadly when a Socialist Party activist was shot by someone whom police identified as a member of the Democratic Party.
Political tensions were amplified when President Ilir Meta accused Rama of usurping all powers and running a “kleptocratic regime.”
Meta’s former party, the Socialist Movement for Integration, which is run by his wife, Monika Kryemadhi, was a DP ally in the election but ran alone and lost seats. Meta said on Wednesday he plans to go back to the party when his term as president expires next year.
A 2020 report on human rights by the U.S. State Department said corruption in Albania is "pervasive in all branches of government." The latest “Nations in Transit” report issued on Wednesday by Freedom House ranks the country as a transitional or hybrid regime and registered declines in the overall democracy score.
“It's quite clear that in Albania, you need stronger institutions to consolidate democracy. And first and foremost among those institutions is an independent judiciary,” Serwer of Johns Hopkins said.
While the Socialist Party sees its third mandate as validation, Wilson of the Atlantic Council said the government is being sent a signal “that it really needs to move on some of the key issues like rule of law and anticorruption measures to really get the EU accession process moving.”
But he said a signal is also being sent to Basha, who is blamed for his party and allies boycotting Parliament in 2017 and not participating in local elections two years later.
“People want to see democracy work, want to see the opposition participate in Albania's parliamentary democracy and be that active opposition within the Parliament, supportive of the interests of the country and moving towards the EU but working through its democratic institutions,” he said.