The battle of Tirana

Elections for the mayoralty of Tirana on May 8th will not only have profound ramifications for politics at the local and national level, but will also provide Albania with an important opportunity to prove its democratic credentials and political maturity to an expectant Europe.

By Kristina Zharkalliu and Dr. Ioannis Armakolas

In Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1966 classic, ‘The Battle of Algiers’, the city’s streets and buildings become the battleground for the violent means employed by the French military and the Algerian revolutionaries. Since Albania entered the pre-municipal election campaign period, its capital, Tirana, has become the battlefield for the country’s two largest parties – the Democratic Party (PD) and the Socialist Party (PS) – due no less to the political stalemate which has tormented the country since the June 2009 elections. At the same time, incidents between government and opposition supporters in Tirana and other cities demonstrate that the country is not immune to political violence.

On May 8th, all eyes will be on the two candidates running for the mayoralty of Albania’s capital. Edi Rama, the chairman of the PS, who once again runs for the post of mayor; whilst the governing coalition of Sali Berisha has decided to field the former interior minister, Lulzim Basha. Both sides have raised the stakes and a victory in the capital for either side will signal a significant advantage in the tug of war of national politics.

The incumbent – Edi Rama

For Rama, it will be his fourth race for Tirana’s mayor-ship, after successive and convincing victories in 2000, 2003 and 2007. During his tenure the capital underwent a revamp of its image. The demolition of hundreds of illegal kiosks and bars near the Lana river, as well as the colourful painting of several buildings, are only some of the innovations that Rama – one of the most popular political figures in the country – has brought. These successes won him the prize of World Mayor 2004. However, his tenure did not escape criticism for failings in several areas. The absence of a central market, for one, has exacerbated the phenomenon of street vending. As a result, not only does the collection of taxes become a costly task, but street-selling – for example, of dairy products – against health regulations poses significant health risks. Rama is also criticized for inadequate maintenance of the urban road network, which contributes to daily congestion and serious delays in transportation.

Admittedly, Rama’s efforts were hindered by PD-PS competition, which has had an important bearing on policy-making in the capital. The governing PD has often placed obstacles on Rama’s plans to prevent successes that would politically benefit the opposition. A typical example is the case of the flyover on Zogu i Zi street. It was built by local authorities under Rama, but later the government dismantled it, invoking environmental concerns and the need to tackle traffic jams in the location. Nevertheless, neither problem has since been adequately addressed. Rama’s local governance capacity was further hindered when the PD and the Socialist Movement for Integration (LSI) joined forces in Tirana’s municipal council.

For Rama, the forthcoming elections in Tirana are not only important for the wider political battle of his party, but also for his intra-party stature. A victory for Rama would signal his strengthen within the PS. If the citizens of Tirana give him a vote of confidence on May 8th, they will indicate not only that they consider him as the most suitable mayor for the capital – and possibly the next prime minister – but also that they support his handling of the political crisis thus far. In contrast, defeat in Tirana would bring a heavy toll for Rama, including discontent and frictions within the PS. Even Rama’s position at the helm of the party could be endangered. He has, after all, so far followed a risky strategy of strong stances towards government, boycotts and street protests, resulting in violent incidents and the death of four demonstrations on January 21st.

These demonstrations have made the day-to-day life of Tirana residents more difficult. In addition, the protests and the general political crisis have tarnished Albania’s image abroad. To Rama’s credit, the demonstrations have been anything but marginal events, attracting a large following. But it still remains a mystery – to which only the forthcoming elections will provide the answer – whether the Tirana demonstrations did more harm than good to Rama and his party.

The challenger – Lulzim Basha

Rama is confronted with Lulzim Basha, an ambitious politician from the PD, who has proved himself over the years in charge of various ministries and, since 2005, as Berisha’s right hand-man. The PD believes that Basha, the party’s ’rising star’, has the political weight to beat Rama and to take control of the capital after 11 years of Socialist Party rule. Shortly after the announcement of his candidacy, Basha quit his governmental functions; no doubt a smart move in an effort to persuade voters of his determination to focus on the citizens’ daily problems rather than national politics.

Basha’s young age – he’s only 37 – may also prove a strong motive for voters wishing to bring a new era to the city. Importantly, he is strongly supported by Ilir Meta, the leader of the minor governing coalition partner, the Socialist Movement for Integration. Meta’s support is expected to win Basha many votes in the capital, whilst the candidate of communist party, Hysni Milloshi, may deprive votes from Rama. The stakes are high for Basha. If he succeeds in breaking the ‘curse of Rama’ in Tirana, then his status within the Democratic Party will be significantly elevated. In contrast, a potential defeat with a considerable margin could signal a serious setback for his political ambitions.

However, this is not a battle in which Basha enters without problems of his own. As interior minister, Basha was the political chief of the National Guards who were responsible for the aforementioned deaths of four protesters on January 21st. Basha shares part of the blame for the mismanagement of the violent protests. It remains to be seen whether the citizens of Tirana will assign more responsibility to the organizer of the protests (Rama) or the person who failed to prevent them from turning violent (Basha).

The Democratic Party’s candidate has also been implicated in allegations about corruption and abuse of power in the construction of the Durrës-Kukës highway. These allegations derive from his time as minister of transportation and public works from 2005 to 2007, before PM Berisha transferred him to the ministry of foreign affairs. No-one was brought to justice for this affair; a fact that further perpetuated the image of Albania as a country where the judicial investigation of cases of corruption remains extremely weak.

National politics, local problems

Focusing, however, only on the stakes that the government and the opposition have on this race would blur the wider impact that the May 8th elections will have. On the one hand, they provide an opportunity to deal with the intimidating challenges that the capital and its inhabitants are facing.

The capital’s transport network is inadequate. Buses, the main means of travel in the city, have infrequent routes and irregular schedules. Traversing the capital takes much longer than the city’s width would suggest. Rapid and unregulated development has multiplied the city’s multi-storey buildings. The lack of greenery and the pollution from vehicles often make the city unbearable. Recycling is a virtually unknown word in Albanian neighborhoods. All these are very real problems that the elected mayor has to deal with above and beyond his – or his party’s – wider political strategy. In contrast to what was the case until today, the elected mayor will have to place the capital’s problems at the top of his political agenda. There has been no dearth of promises by the two candidates for great change in Tirana. The capital’s citizens though will expect the winner to put his money where his mouth is.

Beyond Tirana’s municipal problems, the forthcoming elections ought to have been the opportunity for Albanian politicians to mend the tarnished image of their democracy. Owing to the political deadlock since 2009, the street politics and the deaths of the demonstrators, the forthcoming elections are closely monitored by Europe. Everybody agrees that these elections are a crucial test for Albania’s democratic institutions. Thus far, the pre-electoral campaign, with its several violent incidents, potentially signals another lost opportunity. Albanian politicians, even at this late stage, need to demonstrate political maturity and hold successful elections in accordance with European democratic values.

Kristina Zharkalliu is a Research Assistant and Dr. Ioannis Armakolas the Director of Research of the Athens Working Group: Transforming the Balkans, a programme of the Hellenic Centre for European Studies in Athens.

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