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Albania's democracy hangs by a thread as opposition quits parliament, launches mass protests

Albanian opposition protests in Tirana, 21 February 2019. Courtesy of Ivana Dervishi/BIRN Albania, used with permission.

Thousands of Albanians participated in an opposition-led rally on February 21 in the capital Tirana. They demand fresh elections after an investigation by Voice of America and the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network alleged government officials collaborated with criminal gangs in a vote-buying scheme in the 2017 elections.

The rally climaxed with the resignation of 57 opposition lawmakers from the Democratic Party and Socialist Movement for Integration Party. With parliament closed off for the day, the MPs joined the protests where they made speeches denouncing the government's alleged vote-buying scheme. They have stated that they are relinquishing their mandates “so to give them back to the people and become simple citizens.”

The EU and other Western powers criticized the lawmakers’ decision. NATO-member Albania aims to begin full EU-membership negotiations in 2019.

VoA and BIRN's story fanned the flames of an already burned up relationship between government and opposition. The Socialist Party took office in 2013 and has since passed comprehensive reforms including a judicial one — with the support of the opposition — that is key to Albania's EU ascension. However, the opposition claims Prime Minister Edi Rama has managed to subvert the system and has captured the state institutions so that he can rule without checks and balances.

As of yet, Albania's Prosecution's Office has not filed formal investigations following VoA's and BIRN's allegations.

The February 21 rally was one of the largest to be held in Albania since the 1990s. It followed another massive demonstration on February 16, which had minor violent acts that were countered by the police with tear gas. While the February 21 protest was peaceful, authorities blocked internet and phone signals for several hours, preventing journalists from live-streaming the event.

If the opposition decides to push forward with the boycott, it will be the first time since the fall of communism in 1992 that Albania will have a parliament ruled by a single party.

EU and USA condemns resignations

Representatives of the European Commission, the EU's highest executive body, Federica Mogherini and Johannes Hahn released a statement on February 21 urging the opposition not to boycott the political process and condemning the violent tone some opposition lawmakers displayed during the demonstrations.

The USA embassy was blunt when it called “on all MPs to rise above the political fray, reject calls to abandon their mandates, and defend the ideals and principles central to any vibrant democracy. If you fail to do your job, you fail the people you are privileged to serve.” Its official statement added:

Furthermore, the decision by the opposition to relinquish their mandates seriously hinders the functioning of democracy in Albania. The Parliament is the place where reforms and relevant developments should be discussed and taken forward, not boycotted. These decisions and acts are counterproductive, go against the democratic choice of Albanian citizens and undermine the progress the country has made on the European Union path.

The head of the opposition Lulzim Basha responded to the statements in a speech:

Ask me whatever you want and I will do so. But do not ask me to accept for my people someone you would not accept for your people! We want for our country what is demanded from our European and American allies. We are not the people of violence, we will never accept a PM gangster caught in the act of buying votes.

Many activists and analysts agree that Albania's democracy has retroceded since the 2008 overhaul of the Electoral Code, which swapped the mixed electoral system to proportional regional, while simultaneously collapsing the electorate's 40 zones into only 12. The largest parties benefited from the system, and critics claim the legislative procedure that birthed the new directive was conducted in a non-transparent manner.

Political apathy is also rife in Albania: surveys report that 62 per cent of citizens does not trust the current political parties. A study has shown that Albania's youth unemployment is the highest in Europe and another that one in every two Albanians would like to migrate to richer countries.

As the Albanian opposition advances into uncharted territory, it remains to be seen whether the majority will react constructively to resolve the impasse.

Correction note: A previous version of this article wrongly described the coalition between the Democratic Party and the Socialist Movement for Integration Party as a “right-wing coalition”; the Socialist Movement for Integration is a left-leaning party.

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