Edi Rama: Albanian pop-politician or a falling star?6 min read

 In Analysis, Politics, Southeastern Europe
Prime Minister Edi Rama is the author of a new way of doing politics in Albania, focusing on aesthetics and strategic communication, which gave him the name of ‘pop-politician’.

The astonishing popular support at the beginning of its political career is unquestionable, but has he been able to maintain it until now? Can we still talk about a charismatic populist politician or, rather, about a falling star?

A shining beginning

It was September 2013 when Edi Rama came into power leading a left-wing coalition. Before becoming Prime Minister, he had already held a series of political positions, from Minister of Culture, Youth and Sports in 1998, to Mayor of Tirana in 2003 for two terms, and finally in 2005 when he was appointed as chairman of the Socialist Party. Known for his peculiar past as a painter and basketballer, he became famous in the international press for his eccentric and colourful style. An outsider and a harsh critic of the Albanian parties in general, he seemed to be able to bring a new way of doing politics in the Albanian post-communist political arena.

In 2004, Rama won the prize of ‘World’s Best Mayor’ and the European Hero Award by Time Magazine for the overturning of the previously unkempt and chaotic Albanian capital city. Indeed, Tirana was undergoing radical aesthetic changes that were attracting worldwide press attention. In a short period of time, illegal buildings were removed, and new parks were created. He also inaugurated a successful painting campaign around the city.

When he was interviewed by BBC in 2002, he proudly stated that: I am a pop star among the mayors and a mayor among the pop stars, presenting himself firstly as an artist, and then as a politician. In 2011, he also presented his view about his project of a painted Tirana during the Ted Talk in Thessaloniki. Throughout his 11 years as Mayor of Tirana, Edi Rama regained public confidence in an administration that seemed to be hard-working and focused on results rather than on rhetoric. He also used to have his radio programme ‘Ditë të mbarë me Edi Ramën’ [Have a nice day with Edi Rama] in which citizens could call him to make complaints or just have a conversation with him.

The first Albanian celebrity politician

Rama cuts an interesting figure, as arguably the first Albanian celebrity politician, or pop-politician. This expression indicates that he is the first politician in Albania to seek a celebrity status, using the media as a tool to personalise his image and gain the trust and sympathy of the public. This phenomenon certainly isn’t new, being typical of the United States and emerging more prominently in Europe after the end of the Cold War. It has been favoured by the mediatisation of the public space, which points out the increasing role played by the media in the public arena. In other words, the media’s focus shifted from policies or political positions to personality and physical characteristics of politicians themselves, which could better attract the public’s attention.

In the case of Edi Rama, he became his own self-advertising agency, introducing a new way of doing politics based on his own unique aesthetic. He was also the first politician to express interest in the questions posed by journalists, as it helped to show an image of himself as authentic as possible. He was successful in cultivating this image, Rama was considered the most trusted politician in Albania when he was Mayor. As Prime Minister he has continued to court this image. After the implementation of the restriction in March due to the pandemic, following his strategic communication, Rama started to have conversations by phone with Albanian citizens and to answer their questions or complaints made in the online platform of its Party ‘Shqipëria që duam’ (The Albania that we want).

In the figure of the Albanian Prime Minister, we can see undeniable attention to style and appearance, that has been designed to be highly visible, even during international conferences. During the Western Balkan summit in Trieste in 2017, he was seen wearing white Adidas sneakers with a classic suit. Not to mention his usually colourful ties, which became one of his most distinctive traits. Furthermore, Rama usually mixes celebrity politician communication with populist claims. He will always proclaim the interest of the Albanian people as his main concern while saying that before being a member of the Socialist Party, he is Albanian. The fact that he wasn’t connected to the communist elites, made him a perfect populist candidate, one of the people, an outsider who is determined to fight against corruption at all costs.

A falling star

However, it is undeniable that Edi Rama’s figure is no longer perceived either as one of a hero of the country or as a saviour, as he was addressed by his citizens just five years ago. While previously most would have said that he was trustworthy and a hard worker, now they perceive him more as a criminal and a liar, corrupted like the members of the old Albanian political elite.

The degeneration of his image is due to several scandals affecting him during his two mandates as Prime Minister, from drug smuggling accusations against some of his government staff, to restrictions on press freedom, and finally increasingly authoritarian tendencies. This disillusionment around his policies can be seen in the growing number of people loudly protesting against his policies, such as the demolition of the Albanian National Theatre. We can see Rama’s popularity falling and the erosion of his image as a successful celebrity politician, so carefully cultivated at the beginning of his political career.

See also | With the Opposition Under Curfew, Albania Demolishes its National Theatre

Although he lost most of his public support and credibility, Rama’s role as a pioneer into reforming the way of doing politics in Albania is indisputable. His transformation of Albanian political communication will leave a strong mark in the public space, indeed there hasn’t been anyone yet to challenge him so far. Insulting journalists to avoid answering their questions during a public interview will not help his image, rather it confirms a decline in his capabilities to play with communication strategies.

However, his political party won again the parliamentary election in 2017, mainly because the Democratic Party, the main political opposition, hasn’t been able to present a leader that could challenge the current Prime Minister. Therefore, without a real alternative in the Albanian political arena, Edi Rama is more than likely to win again the upcoming national election next year. It seems Albania’s pop politician hasn’t fallen out of the charts quite yet.

Featured image: Prime Minister Edi Rama / Amanda Sonesson
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