In the Republic of Albania, the next local elections are scheduled to take place on 14 May 2023. The last local elections, which were held on 30 June 2019, were boycotted by the opposition, while the turnout at the elections was only 21.6%. As a result, all positions in local self-governance authorities were occupied by the candidates of the Socialist Party (PS) headed by Edi Rama. The last local elections in Albania were conducted in an atmosphere of tensions after the Albanian opposition had withdrawn from the work of the Parliament and organized political activities on the streets of Tirana at which it requested the resignation of Prime Minister Rama, establishment of an interim government and holding of general elections.
At the local elections a total of 3,650,550 eligible voters will be able to vote at 5,211 polling stations. Forty-eight political parties with 23,788 candidates will participate at the local elections. Out of the total number, 144 candidates, including 15 women, aspire to become presidents of municipalities. The elections will be monitored by 324 international observers of the OSCE/ODIHR. Albania has 61 municipalities, and the country needs a thorough reform of local self-governance.
Albania was granted the EU candidate status in September 2014. The country opened the accession negotiations with the EU in late 2022. The list of issues that Albania needs to address include judicial reform, fight against crime (drug trafficking and human trafficking) and corruption, lack of independent media, depoliticization of institutions, improved efficiency, as well as establishment of a more dynamic dialogue between the government and the opposition with the aim of making the reforms more comprehensive and swifter. Political pressures, intimidation, corruption and limited resources have prevented the judiciary from becoming fully functional, independent and effective. The corruption is omnipresent in all the segments and all levels of the government, including the areas of public procurement and public-private partnerships. Edi Rama's government was not successful in the mitigation of economic and social consequences of the triple earthquakes from 2019.
An inevitable question for Edi Rama is why is Albania still by far the poorest country in Europe, although it has exceptional potential for development? Both the EU and NATO failed with respect to resolution of the political crisis in Albania. However, the crisis in Albania has exposed Edi Rama's corruption network, which includes some (former) senior officials of the EU, US and some other countries.
"Together We Win" coalition against the Socialist Party
Although these are local elections at which leaders of the leading political parties do not participate, the key pre-election "competition" is taking place between the leaders of the Socialist Party and the current Prime Minister Edi Rama on one side and the "Together We Win" coalition (Bashkë Fitojmë), led by two veterans of Albanian politics and former Albanian Presidents Sali Berisha and Ilir Meta.
Although a fight is being waged for every position and every vote, the election campaign is directed at major towns such as Tirana, Elbasan and Durrës. According to public opinion polls the level of public support of the Socialist Party and the "Together We Win" is more or less equal. The "Together We Win" coalition dominates at the north of Albania (Shkodër, Tropojë, Kukës, Lezha and Has), but its support is increasing in the south of the country as well.
The results of pre-election polls in Albania do not always offer credible indicators of the opinion of the electorate with respect to how the public will vote on the day of elections. However, the results of polls are used as the basis for determination of election strategies, debates and analysis.
Local Elections – Choice between drug cartels and/or parliamentary republic?
When Edi Rama launched the police operation aimed at destruction of the Lazaret village, which was the center of drug business, a final showdown with the drug business was expected. It later transpired that Edi Rama had only put the business under his control. Furthermore, instead of pursuing reforms, development and further democratization of the country he initiated the process of "cannabization of Albania." A significant part of arable land is planted with cannabis, while the drug business is control by politico-criminal structures. During the mandate of Prime Minister Edi Rama Albania became a safe haven for criminals from Europe, Asia, North and South America. A mitigating circumstance for the criminal structures is the visa-free regime that Albania has with EU member countries, which allows criminals free movements and business operations, as well as enormous profits from drug and human trafficking. Edi Rama and his "background" has closed to Albania the doors to membership in the EU, because as along as Rama is at the helm of the Albanian government, the country will not be co-opted into the EU.
The International Narcotics Control Strategy Report identifies Albania as the source of cannabis and home base for organized criminal groups that illegally trade in drugs from the source country to the European markets. Albanian cannabis is distributed to Turkey and exchanged for heroin and cocaine, which Albanian citizens smuggle throughout Europe. The Albanian authorities have registered an increase in confiscated cocaine in 2021 through the Durrës port, primarily in the shipments of bananas from Ecuador. Albanian police force participated in several inter-state law enforcement operations in 2021. In the operations, Albanian citizens, inter alia, were arrested in Greece, Italy, Spain and Holland. Albanian law enforcement authorities cooperated with their US counterparts in the arrest and confiscation of a shipment of narcotics and a drug processing laboratory in Albania, as well as seizure of property in Albania associated with global international drug trafficking. Following his arrest on 31 March 2021 in the US, the Albanian courts confiscated Ylli Didani's property worth 1.2 million dollars in April 2021. The Special Anti-Corruption Structure (SPAK) was established. Several successes were achieved in 2021, including the arrest of 38 persons, including one prosecutor and several senior police officials, within the framework of a major international investigation into drug and human trafficking. Albanian citizens play a significant role in the international and organized criminal network engaged in drug trafficking. Furthermore, Albania is a key element of the Balkans route for drug trafficking towards Western Europe and Great Britain. Albanian organized criminal groups are present in the US, Great Britain and throughout Europe, as well as in South America, including Ecuador, Columbia and Peru. They have established an integrated procurement, transport, distribution and sale chain in Europe, Great Britain and the US. Albanian organized criminal groups continue to conduct money laundering in Albania, thus contributing to corruption in the country.
In Albania violent crime is often associated with organized crime, but also with judges, prosecutors, police and media, who are often subject to intimidation. The relatively weak rule of law, corruption and high unemployment level are the main Albanian problems with respect to control of drug trafficking. Criminal justice reforms in Albania should include removal of judges and prosecutors connected with organized crime and/or with unjustifiable wealth. The US support judicial reforms in Albania through advisory support and development of capacities for SPAK prosecutors and investigators, enhanced interagency cooperation in the investigations, corrections of reforms aimed to limit the operations of transnational organized crime. Furthermore, the US have also offered to provide specialized equipment for improvement of respective operational capabilities. Albania must continue with the judicial reform, enhance the regulations and supervision against money laundering and work on the elimination of influence of organized crime on the Albanian government and society.
The special structure for fight against corruption and organized crime (SPAK), which includes the Special Prosecution Office (SPO) and the National Investigation Bureau (NBI), is under-capacitated. While progress has been achieved with respect to confiscation of property associated with organized crime, it needs to be further intensified in the future. Furthermore, it is also necessary to continue the efforts aimed to achieve increased criminal prosecution and better enforcement of final and binding judgements, particularly at the high level. Fight against cyber-crime, human trafficking and money laundering remain areas in which additional results are required. An indicator of the situation in Albania is also an increased number of Albanian citizens who have filed asylum requests in EU member countries. Adoption of tax and criminal amnesty is contrary to the stance of the EU Council and Moneyval and can undermine progress in this area, as well as in the fight against money laundering.
"Albania remains vulnerable to money laundering due to corruption, the presence of organized crime networks, and gaps in legislation and supervision. Albania has a large cash economy and informal sector, with significant remittance and investment money inflows from abroad. Narcotics trafficking and other organized crime activity are the major sources of laundered funds. Albanian criminal organizations have links with networks operating broadly across Europe and in South America."
Frequent scandals with international dimensions expose links between Rama's regime and international factors and the corruption of foreign officials (case of former FBI official Charles McGonigal). Establishment and strengthening of several governmental agencies associated with Prime Minister Rama (Agency for Co-Governance, Media and Information Agency, Agency for Strategic Programing and Aid Coordination - SASPAC) without a comprehensive management framework and with no systemic oversight of supervision and reporting lines, raise questions regarding effective coordination and provision of services by public administration bodies.
Analysts believe that the upcoming elections in Albania transcend the character and relevance of local elections, because they are an opportunity to embark on the final showdown with Edi Rama's regime and decriminalization of Albania. Alliance between Sali Berisha and Ilir Meta through the "Together We Win" coalition brings together opposition political forces and represents a mass movement of discontented citizens of Albania ready to engage in a fight for the final showdown with the drug cartels, crime and corruption. The local elections are a kind of an opportunity for the citizens of Albania to choose whether they wish to have a drug cartel rule the country and/or a parliamentary republic- of which the citizens have been predominantly robbed and deprived over the past 10 years. The elections have to be transparent, free and fair, without purchase of voters and voters with "black money," that is dirty money from drug businesses and human trafficking. Namely, revenues from drug businesses exceed the Albanian national budget. The political concept of retention of Edi Rama in power is based on the purchase of votes and intimidation, and Rama has unlimited amounts of money of dubious origin and a repressive apparatus at his disposal for such purposes.
Rama against strong civil society (NGOs)
The implementation of the new Law on registration of nonprofit organizations adopted in June 2021 has still not begun. The High Judicial Council has received budget funds for procurement of an electronic register of nonprofit organizations and a contract on its implementation was signed in May 2022. There was no progress in the implementation of the road map for creation of an enabling environment for civil society, particularly in the context of the law on volunteers.
Institutional cooperation between civil society and the Government still needs to be strengthened to ensure purposeful participation of civil society organizations (CSOs) in the decision making processes, as well as in the negotiations on accession to the EU. Empowerment of the civil society is a key component of any democratic society, which is in deficit in Albania and which Edi Rama evidently fears.
Necessary transition government for preparation of early elections
Albania is in a situation of a silent civil war, extremely polarized and divided society, as well as increased number of assassinations, which is of no surprise. Why is Albania a divided society? To be involved in a drug business, human trafficking, crime and corruption, one needs a divided society, which will divert the public attention from the operations of the drug business.
With the fall of Enver Hoxha's communist regime in 1991, the retrograde forces were defeated. However, after the arrival of Edi Rama and his Socialist Party (SP), whose roots go back to the former communist party of Albania, to power these forces were revitalized. Led by his desire to remain in power, Rama will try to transfer the crisis from Albania to the region, as well as broader European area. Albania needs a new cycle of democratization and decriminalization of the state.
The processes in the region, which were initially commenced in North Macedonia, are gradually eliminating the proponents of destabilization, crime and corruption, such as Nikola Gruevski (VMRO-DPMNE), Hashim Thaci (PDK), Boyko Borissov (GERB), and after the fall of Milo Đukanović (DPS), next in the line are Milorad Dodik (SNSD) and Edi Rama (PS). It was not without reason that Edi Rama had openly supported Milo Đukanović at the recently held elections in Montenegro, because by supporting Đukanović he was supporting himself, as well as his similar concept and method of rule.
Judging by everything, the local elections will cause establishment of an interim government that will organize early parliamentary elections and a peaceful transition of government. Edi Rama's biggest "success" is that during his tenure he had strengthened the position of Albania as by far the poorest country in Europe.