Victorious and Unopposed: can Edi Rama reboot Albania’s EU dream?5 min read
Albania’s recent national elections held on 25 April have confirmed Edi Rama, the leader of the country’s Socialist Party, as the only winner. The new government now faces a series of challenges at both the international and national level. One of the main points of Rama’s electoral campaign is to turn Albanian EU accession into reality, but member states’ vetoes and regional complications have slowed the process to a standstill. As the EU dream threatens to fade away, will the Albanian prime minister be able to maintain his promises?
The third consecutive victory of Rama’s Socialist Party has been seen as a huge defeat for Albania’s main opposition party, the Democratic Party led by Lulzim Basha. Undoubtedly, Rama commanded a significant advantage as incumbent prime minister, promoting and picturing himself striking deals for vaccines or presenting new huge economic investments and projects around the country. However, leaders using their position for their own benefit during an electoral campaign is hardly unusual in the Balkans, and cannot be seen as the main reason for his victory.
Rather, the defeat of Lulzim Basha only confirms the opposition leader’s inability to convince the public that he was a better option than the Rama government. Even as Rama received plenty of criticism over his tenure as prime minister, Basha has failed to offer a more credible alternative. In early 2019, Basha, at the head of a coalition of opposition parties, launched a series of protests across the country, accusing Rama of corruption and connections to organized crime, calling for him to resign.
During the height of the protests, Basha’s party members tore up their parliamentary mandates, resigning all their seats, and later also boycotted local elections. Despite Basha’s attempt to frame the protests as a struggle against corruption and authoritarianism, the protests did not find any support with the broader Albanian public, nor with the EU and US embassies in Albania. Basha, backed by former Prime Minister Sali Berisha, is seen as part of the old political elite and has done nothing remarkable during his eight years as opposition leader. What could he bring compared to his adversary? With no guarantees, for most of the Albanian voters, the game was not worth the candle.
After just over one month, the new government was able to find early success in the international political arena. For the first time, Albania joined the UN Security Council as a non-permanent member, which confirmed the determination of Rama’s government to strengthen the country’s international position. At the EU level however, the situation is indefinitely stuck. Albania’s EU accession process is widely seen as bound to that of North Macedonia, for which the opening of negotiations has been blocked twice: first by Greece, which brought the Macedonian government to change the name of the country; and then by Bulgaria, in a disagreement over historical identity. A recent poll shows that 97% of Albanians are pro-EU, but as the EU dream becomes more and more like a mirage, it is not clear how long it might take for the Albanian people to tire of hoping and begin to look elsewhere.
While the accession process continues to be drawn out, often hindered by the unpopularity of EU enlargement in the electorates of many member states, other players are putting down roots in the Balkans. At the end of 2020, Rama signed an Agreement for Economic Cooperation with the United Arab Emirates that is in open conflict with the Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA) that Albania signed with the EU in 2009. The SAA is traditionally one of the first steps that lead a non-EU country to align with the European values and standards. By diverging from it, the Albanian government has made a concrete display of disaffection, demonstrating its need for alternative partners. An agreement signed in January to tighten Albania’s bilateral relationship with Turkey is another sign of this trend. The new friendship with Turkey is already bearing fruit, with the inauguration of the new Turkish hospital constructed in the southern city of Fier. Turkey is seen as a more reliable partner compared to the EU, without any conditionality attached to deepening ties.
Emboldened by his election victory, Edi Rama has also challenged his greatest constitutional roadblock in an effort to consolidate power. On the national level, the long-time divergence between Rama and the Albanian president, Ilir Meta culminated on 16 June, when the Albanian parliament voted to remove Meta from office. Meta’s impeachment did not come unexpectedly, since he was already accused by Rama of having interfered during the electoral campaign, violating the impartiality of his role as stated in the constitution. It will be up to the Constitutional Court to deliberate within three months, and if the impeachment is approved, it would discharge the Albanian president before the end of his mandate in June 2022. Meta and Rama had a history of periodic clashes that led the prime minister to openly define Meta as “the symbol of everything rotten happening in Albania”. Since Albania is a parliamentary republic, the role of the president is mainly ceremonial, so Rama’s confrontation with Meta seems more than anything to be a demonstration of power.
The highly polarized society that arose after the national election saw the two main parties constantly accuse and publicly denigrate each other. Nevertheless, the newly elected prime minister has been able to maintain control of the government, calling for unity over differences, while Basha continues to refuse to accept the results of the elections. Despite the lack of interest from the EU in the Western Balkan region, leaving too much space for the incursions of authoritarian powers, the new government seems still convinced to pursue the EU path, only with one eye open to the east. Though that path is getting longer and more arduous year by year, as Rama has continued to promise he will keep guiding Albania toward the EU, no matter what.