Tirana, Albania – Albania‘s ruling Socialist Party is set to sweep away the last vestiges of opposition power on Sunday in nationwide local elections that have deeply divided the country and the international community.
The main opposition parties, the Democratic Party (DP) and Socialist Integration Party (LSI), have refused to field candidates in the country’s 61 municipalities and urged their voters to stay home.
As a result, the outcome of the polls is not in doubt: the opposition will lose power in the 24 municipalities it currently controls.
The opposition boycott on Thursday prompted President Ilir Meta to announce a new date for the elections – October 13 – but the government of Prime Minister Edi Rama insists they will go ahead on Sunday.
Opposition mayors have refused to allow ballot boxes to be installed, resulting in scuffles in at least 14 towns. On Friday, at least two opposition mayors were reported arrested for resisting election preparations.
In the Democratic stronghold of Shkoder, northern Albania, a school that was supposed to have been used as a voting centre was damaged earlier this week after government opponents apparently set fire to boxes full of voter ballots.
“Municipal buildings will not be used for any purposes other than those they currently fulfil,” Shkoder’s Mayor Voltana Ademi told Al Jazeera on Thursday.
“If [government authorities] want to force the buildings open, they can. We will not fight, but we will resist in public and go to court,” she said.
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The education ministry has contacted the local schools, which lie outside municipal control, Ademi said, and it can also rent privately owned buildings to set up Shkoder’s 255 polling stations.
Al Jazeera learned that ballot boxes reached Shkoder on Thursday and were scheduled to be installed.
Meanwhile, in the city of Kukes, near the Kosovo border, five people were reportedly arrested on June 20 for resisting police efforts to open voting centres.
The opposition DP and LSI parties have been on the warpath since February when their MPs resigned after media leaks suggested that Socialist cabinet ministers were colluding with criminal organisations to win elections.
Such walkouts have also happened before, but the MPs made the move irreversible by burning their mandates.
The Democrats then organised a series of street protests to demand Rama’s removal and an early general election.
Those protests have petered out just when they ought to have been reaching their climax. Pressure from the United States State Department may be partly responsible.
“Any violence from [June 26] to July 1 will force the US State Department to classify you as a violent organisation,” Daniel Koski, deputy acting chief of mission in Albania, reportedly told opposition leaders Lulzim Basha and Monika Kryemadhi.
Ademi said she had already paid for her stance with psychological pressure from the Central Electoral Commission.
“They said that if we do not [prepare for elections] they are going to go to the prosecutor’s office ‘to denounce you for what you are doing, and after that, you are going to jail for not proceeding as we are saying’,” Ademi said.
Albania’s president cancels local polls citing political tension
She added that similar threats had come from Rama’s office.
“They have transformed themselves into yellow vests,” Rama told Al Jazeera, referencing a protest movement in France named after the fluorescent jackets French drivers are required to carry in their vehicles.
“And they have engaged in the creation of an image of Albania that is not the result of the people’s uprising but the result of a set-up,” he told Al Jazeera earlier this month.
“It is a well-orchestrated plan but it will not work. We will go on. We will have elections on the 30th because it is impossible that a political minority imposes its will through threats, through violence.”
The threat of violence is precisely what had initially led Meta, the president, to issue a decree on June 10 cancelling the elections.
When Al Jazeera interviewed Meta on June 14, he explained that his move “serves social peace and stability by avoiding further escalation that could lead to a civil confrontation in the country”.
Meta has an additional concern. The uncontested election of many of the 61 mayors would damage Albania’s image as a pluralistic democracy as it tries to start European Union membership negotiations.
Those talks were scheduled to begin in June. They have now been postponed until October, at the earliest.
“If the crisis is going to last, the chances [of starting memberships talks] will be undermined for years, not for months,” Meta told Al Jazeera.
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“If we do not show normality and progress now related to the future general or local elections, it will be a disaster.”
Meta made it clear that if Rama proceeded, he would not recognise the election result under the constitution.
“There are no elections on the 30th of June,” he said.
Rama had reacted to Meta’s cancellation of Sunday’s election by convening parliament on June 13 to censure the president.
His motion accused Meta of partisanship and said he had lost the authority to represent all Albanians.
He has now tabled a further motion to remove Meta from office altogether.
“When I confirmed [Rama] as prime minister of Albania, I was expecting from him – as staying longer in office – to be more flexible and more cooperative with the opposition,” Meta told Al Jazeera.
“I am looking forward to seeing him leave behind this divisive rhetoric, which he uses too much.”
Rama, who has been in power since 2013, was unrepentant when Al Jazeera asked him whether he was worried about civil unrest on Sunday.
“Are there potential dangers? It might be that some disruption here and there might happen,” he said in a June 14 interview.
Then, remembering that the 2017 general election was postponed at the Democrats’ behest, he added: “But it’s the least of pains we have to choose, compared to the never-ending pain of continuing in the same old way.”
Along with EU talks, economy falters
The EU delayed inviting Albania to open membership talks this month, partly because of its political problems, and partly because it wants to see greater progress in fighting drug-fuelled organised crime.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel told a parliamentary committee that October was the earliest possible date for such an invitation.
That is frustrating to most Albanians, who enjoy the lowest standard of living in Europe, with per capita GDP of a little over $4,500 and a minimum wage of $220 a month, according to Eurostat, the European Commission’s statistics office.
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Bank of Albania figures showed that remittances from Albania’s diaspora last year reached their highest level since 2012, at $680m, the Albanian Daily News reported.
Hundreds of thousands of Albanians famously fled the country when communism collapsed in 1990 – and many thousands continue to leave.
“More than half the friends I had in [university] are abroad,” said Dritan, a software developer who graduated three years ago and preferred not to use his real name.
He said he supported neither the Socialists nor the Democrats in Sunday’s election but wanted them both to respect the law.
“I consider myself well-paid in Albania. The reason I’m considering leaving is not economic,” he said.
“I want to live in a peaceful country, in a country where citizens are respected, where our rights are respected.”
Rama said he considered such flight natural for a country that was still emerging from a long period of poverty under communism.
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“The better you do, the more you want,” he said. “Expectations are the biggest enemy of every government.”
Although Rama remained cautiously optimistic that the EU would invite Albania to open talks in October, he admitted the country has a long way to go.
“Albania has a problem with organised crime and corruption, as every country that is not yet a modern, functioning state,” Rama said.
“That’s why I’m not pretending that it’s an injustice that we’re not members today.”
But Rama warned that Albania needed hope, likening it to an organ “that is dragging outside the body” of the EU, and had to be tucked in to make the body whole: “I think the EU needs us in the Western Balkans as much as we need the EU.”