The Socialist Party’s decision on 21 August to nominate Ilir Meta for another term as Prime Minister closed out the longest election in Albania’s turbulent post-communist history. Voting for the parliament was held, extraordinarily, in four rounds on 24 June 2001, and 8, 22 and 29 July due to accusations of electoral fraud in various forms. It was, nevertheless, peaceful and produced a decisive victory for the ruling Socialist Party (SP). The Socialists, who have held power since 1997, won 73 seats in the 140-member legislature, against 46 for the Union for Victory (UfV) coalition, led by the Democratic Party (DP). The remaining 21 seats were allocated among five small parties, each of which gained the necessary 2.5 per cent of votes, and two independent candidates who won direct mandates. The results gave the Socialists a sufficient majority to form a new government and, crucially, with the aid of likely allies, to elect a new president in 2002 when the term of the incumbent, Rexhep Meidani, expires. Formation of that government, however, was delayed further weeks until the SP’s General Steering Committee gave Meta an overwhelming victory in his bitter personal battle with the party chairman, Fatos Nano, who backed his own man for the prime minister’s chair.
A decade after the collapse of communism, it can be argued that parliamentary democracy is finally gaining a tentative hold in Albania. The refusal (with some justification) of much of the opposition to accept the Socialists' victory as fairly won, however, means that Albanian politics will continue to be rough, rude, and potentially explosive.
The Socialist-led government has overseen a return to stability and even a measure of economic growth since coming to power in 1997. These factors, combined with its responsible attitude towards the situations of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, the Presevo Valley of southern Serbia, and Macedonia, ensured victory. They have likewise gained a good measure of international support for Prime Minister Ilir Meta's administration. With tensions rising in neighbouring Macedonia, the relatively peaceful atmosphere in which the elections were conducted was important not only for Albania but also for the region. The Socialists’ victory was welcomed by Albania's neighbours, who now feel confident that Tirana will continue to urge the Kosovo and Macedonian Albanians to use dialogue rather than violence to achieve their political aims. For the first time, an Albanian electoral campaign was fought more on issues than on personalities, but these were mainly domestic – the “national issue” played virtually no part, at least directly.
The calm atmosphere of this campaign, which was in marked contrast to previous elections, can be explained in part by the apathy of the population. As Albania's leading analyst put it succinctly: the public is tired and disappointed by politics, and indifference prevails over protest. The turnout was low: 54 per cent for the first round, 48 per cent for the second. However, this may be deceptive as a barometer of political interest. Absentee voting is not permitted, and a considerable number of the eligible 2.5 million Albanians reside abroad. The administrative problems that the drawn-out electoral process revealed have raised calls for changing to a purely proportional system.
Despite instances of irregularities and police intimidation, both the Central Election Commission and international monitors concluded that the first round could generally be regarded as free and fair. An OSCE press release stated that it represented clear progress towards meeting European standards. Ensuing rounds, the results of which were crucial for control of the parliament and the opportunity to determine next year’s presidential election, however, proved far more problematic. Both major parties pulled out all the stops, legal and illegal. The Constitutional Court is now overwhelmed with complaints, and the public's confidence in the entire process has been seriously undermined.
The DP gained a considerably higher percentage of votes cast than of seats won. The SP captured many of its seats by very small majorities, thus providing grounds for DP charges of ballot stuffing and police intimidation. As a result, the DP's leader, Sali Berisha, has announced that the UfV coalition will neither recognise the results nor participate in the next parliament unless voting is repeated in more than 30 constituencies. It is by no means certain, however, that all the parties in the UfV will join a parliamentary boycott. The Legality Movement has said it may reconsider, and the Republican Party has called a boycott immature and potentially damaging to the interests of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo and Macedonia, who require a stable and relatively unified Albanian government at a time of national crisis.
Both major parties, SP and DP, have emerged from the elections with serious internal divisions. Soul-searching has begun within the Democratic Party about its future and that of Berisha, its stubborn and unpredictable leader. The recently founded New Democratic Party, which came out of the elections as Albanian's third political force, is likely to gain a significant number of disaffected DP members. Meanwhile, the Socialist Party is likely to experience further tremors from the ongoing power struggle between Meta and Nano, which could also seriously impair the credibility of the new government.
Tirana/Brussels, 23 August 2001