As the vote counting enters its final phase, it is becoming increasingly clear that despite significant gains of the Democratic Party, the Socialist Party will win an outright majority in the Assembly. Current projections, based on 93.8% of the votes counted, put the Socialist Party (PS) at a comfortable 48.66%, ahead of the opposition Democratic Party (PD) (39.39%) and Socialist Party for Integration (LSI) (6.86%).
How did the PS manage to eke out a third win in the national polls, despite significant losses? The answer lies in the full control that the PS has over all aspects of the Albanian state.
- Control over the Assembly. After the PD and LSI left the Assembly in February 2019, the PS has dominated the legislative chamber where the remainder of the “opposition” consisted of inconsistent, largely incompetent split-offs and third-rate deputies, while the extra-parliamentary PD-LSI opposition claimed to be the sole legitimate voice against the government. This has allowed Rama to freely pass whichever legislation pleased him, including the October 2020 amendments to the Electoral Code. The October amendments confirmed a national voting threshold of 1%, basically barring any independent candidates from winning a seat. The prohibition on pre-electoral joined lists/coalitions hampered the unification of the opposition. The ballot design was intentionally confusing, opening up the possibility of high numbers of invalid ballots (see point 7).
- Control over the national government. Being in charge of the executive branch has allowed the PS to tap into not only state resources, but also consolidate a large patronage system in which government officials were in charge of recruiting votes, assisted by a large, potentially illegal database containing private information and “dossiers” on each Albanian citizen. Without access to government databases, such a system would not have been possible. As the Electiongate tapes of 2019 have shown, the Rama government already possessed an extensive network of criminal connections to pressure voters, a situation which so far has failed to lead to any investigation or conviction.
- Control over the local government. The local elections in 2019 were boycotted by the opposition, which allowed the PS to take control of all but one municipality in Albania, in some cases with more than 100% of the vote. Even though these elections are still being contested at the Constitutional Court and remain unrecognized by the opposition, the PS is de facto in power in nearly all local governments. Access to municipal resources and local institutions that manage services such as electricity, education, building permits, and water supply again provide ample opportunity for exerting pressure on those needing to be convinced to vote “correctly.” Another example is the €40,000 fine given to independent labor activist candidate Elton Debreshi for breaking Covid-19 rules, while all major political parties regularly held rallies breaking those regulations with impunity.
- Control over the judiciary. It is safe to conclude that the Justice Reform has so far failed to produce any significant results, except a severe depletion and weakening of the judiciary. Its core element, the vetting, is at serious risk of being undermined by pending cases at the European Court of Human Rights. The new Constitutional Court has so far been unable to take up the most pressing cases, including the legality of the 2019 local elections, while SPAK has been unable so far to prosecute corrupt politicians (see point 6). The most recent verdict of the Special Courts, to confiscate all electronic equipment of Lapsi because of their reporting on the PS voter database, was struck down in an extraordinary emergency verdict by the European Court of Human Rights.
- Control over the press. Edi Rama has consolidated control over all major TV stations and newspapers in Albania, with only a few independent media outlets (including Exit) remaining. Rama has waged an intimidation campaign against any form of critical journalism, with press freedom organizations frequently sounding the alarm. Lack of independent reporting consistently skews public perception of the detrimental effects of the Rama government.
- The rise of Tom Doshi’s PSD. Tom Doshi’s Social-Democratic Party (PSD) has traditionally had 1 mandate (Doshi’s) in Shkodra county securely voting with the PS, but now looks to have tripled to 3 mandates. Despite Doshi being implicated in criminal activities and corruption and being barred from entering the US and significant international pressure, he was allowed to participate in the elections. Very conveniently, after delivering the 3 “non-PS” mandates to the PS on election night, Doshi resigned as head of the PSD, leaving Rama with a convenient buffer of guaranteed votes and Doshi no doubt with guaranteed immunity from any further prosecution.
- Invalid ballots. Because the biometric voter identification assumedly left less possibilities for fraud in the voting booth (double voting, dead people voting, etc.), manipulation had to be shifted to other parts of the “voting pipeline.” Thus the PS introduced a controversial ballot design without names, but only with numbers. Voters thus had to actively remember two numbers (for party and for candidate) to vote for a specific candidate. This obviously also required placing two crosses instead of one. As the elderly and less educated populations are thought to be more likely to vote for the opposition, this new design most likely helped the PS. The percentage of invalid votes is 5.1%, which translated can be translated to 7 mandates. In 2017, the percentage of invalid ballots was 2.0%. During the counting, LVV-supported independent candidate Kreshnik Merxhani (Gjirokastra) published a video purportedly showing ballot counters adding extra crosses to ballots.
- The internationals. Hoping that with “proper” national elections now the travesty of democracy of the 2019 local elections will be forgotten, the internationals, in particular US ambassador Yuri Kim and EU ambassador Luigi Soreca, have staged a multi-day media show of visiting voting and counting centers, “making sure” that everything is done according to the book. Of course, they wouldn’t recognize fraud if it happened right under their noses, but their continuous presence aids the Rama government in delegitimating claims of any real fraudulent activities by pointing to the internationals’ presence and enthusiastic approval. It should be emphasized once again that the EU and US are not interested in democracy in Albania; they are interested in stability in the Western Balkans region. Edi Rama provides stability. Stability is desirable. Therefore Edi Rama is desirable. Everything else – corruption, crime, braindrain, ecological destruction, poverty – is an afterthought. A colonial attitude is deeply engrained in the mindset of the internationals in Tirana (indeed, Soreca’s country of origin formerly occupied Albania), and statements such Ambassador Kim’s recent “happy to return [to check on counting centers] when necessary,” only serve to affirm that.
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