After peace broke out between the big parties late this year, the question is whether the Berisha-Rama honeymoon can survive the challenges ahead, including the election of a new president.
By Besar Likmeta
Following two years of political turmoil, fuelled by street protests and harsh rhetoric, Albania’s political elite enjoyed a rare moment of “closure” at the end of 2011.
For the first time since the disputed May 8 local elections, the opposition MPs returned to parliament in September and so enabled the adoption of several laws that required more than a simple majority.
The Socialists, led by Edi Rama, and the ruling Democrats, led by Prime Minister Sali Berisha, have now started work on reform of the electoral code, one of the key conditions set by Brussels for the country to progress further toward its long-term EU goals.
Some observers detect the start of a new political honeymoon between the two feuding party leaders – based on a common interest in keeping an electoral system that favours their own parties and blocks the ambitions of their smaller allies.
However, with a worsening economic crisis, the election of a new president in July and political coalitions on both sides under strain, it is difficult to predict how long this marriage of convenience will last.
The Socialist and the Democrats, who have been on a war footing since the disputed 2009 parliamentary elections, have reportedly reached a deal on electoral reform without changing the basics of the system, which favours large parliamentary parties.
Albania’s current electoral code is based on a proportional regional system with closed lists of MPs. It was passed at the end of 2008 with the votes of the two big parties.
The code was widely contested by the smaller parties both on left and right, which saw their numbers of seats in the assembly and influence shrink.
Now those smaller parties, including the Republicans, the Socialist Movement for Integration and the Social Democrats, are calling for corrections to the proportional system that would enable them to win more seats.
Although these smaller allies of the big parties are threatening to abandon their respective coalitions if they don’t get their way, analysts don’t believe the Socialists and the Democrats will address their grievances.
“The détente between Rama and Berisha will continue despite pressure from the smaller parties,” says Arion Sulo, editor of the Tirana daily, Mapo. “On this issue there is a silent pact between both parties to stand firm.”
However, political commentator Lutfi Dervishi warns that the agreement between the Socialist and the Democrats will be severely tested in the months ahead and there is no guarantee that it will hold.
“It is unclear whether the parties have made a lasting peace or whether it’s just a short armistice,” Dervishi said. “It will be tested once serious reforms come [for a vote in parliament,]” he added.
According to Dervishi the two parties have a chance to further dialogue and make progress on EU-suggested reforms in the first months of the year before the elections of the new president in July. After that, Albania will move into a pre-electoral atmosphere ahead of the 2013 general elections.
Based on the constitutional changes agreed by Rama and Berisha in 2008, the election of the new president will require only a simple majority in parliament.
However, although Berisha does not need opposition votes for the election, he could come under pressure from the international community to nominate a consensual candidate, owing to the fraught political climate in the past two years and the disputed polls that have marked them.
According to Sulo, Berisha’s stance on reform of the electoral code may change as the presidential nomination approaches.
He might try to use the electoral reform as means to push for the election of a presidential candidate from the Democratic Party with the backing of the opposition.
“I believe Berisha will hold an ace under his sleeve until then in order to use it in the presidential election,” Sulo said.
Differently from Sulo, Dervishi warns that the debate on the elections of a consensual president will not go beyond TV shows and political declarations.
“There may be a debate on the quality of the candidate, but it will not lead up to the kind of crisis we have seen in the past,” he predicted.
Although political developments will generate the headlines in 2012, most experts believe the worsening economic situation, and the response it receives, will be the real test of Albania’s political elite in 2012.
According to the IMF, Albania’s sovereign debt is high and the country looks increasingly exposed to a likely downturn in investor interest. This will have a knock-on effect on confidence in the overall financial system, the IMF says.
“The post-crisis environment has posed significant policy challenges. GDP growth is projected to be around 2.5 per cent in 2011, decelerating from above 3 per cent in 2009 and 2010,” the Fund noted in a report in late October.
The IMF estimates that growth in GDP in 2012 will be only 1.5 per cent while the World Bank’s forecast is slightly higher, at 2 per cent.
“If we look at the region, our neighbours and the continent at large the economic news in not good and Albania won’t be a shining city on the hill,” Dervishi predicts.
However, Dervishi says that an economic slowdown might have one positive effect, by forcing the national debate to turn from political wrangling to economic reforms.
“For the first time in 2011 there was a debate about taxes, the debt and the model of development,” he noted, adding: “The economic crisis may be beneficial if it pushes political energies in the right direction after all.”