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In Albania, a New Left Is Challenging the Oligarchs’ Parties

Today’s Albanian election sees Edi Rama’s Partia Socialiste running for a third term, two years after a powerful student movement forced the sacking of half his cabinet. In one of Europe’s poorest countries, green shoots of protest are finally challenging the parties that led Albania to neoliberal capitalism.

Prime minister of Albania Edi Rama in Brussels, Belgium, on March 1, 2021. (Dursun Aydemir / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Today’s parliamentary elections in Albania will see the PS (Partia Socialiste) aiming for a third term in office, with the rival PD (Partia Demokratike) seeking a return to power after eight years in opposition. This follows a pattern: the three decades since the end of the Hoxhaist regime in 1991 have seen these two parties alternate in government, leading the country from a planned economy toward the free market.

In the early years following the collapse of the dictatorship, the main economic and financial reforms promoted by both main parties consisted of stabilizing the currency, privatizing state-run enterprises, and opening the market to foreign investors. This soon hit trouble: the failure of Ponzi schemes in 1997 prompted a near-civil-war situation.

But over the last two decades, the Albanian economy has been relatively stable, with GDP growth peaking at 4.1 percent in 2018, albeit falling back the following year due to a series of both natural and governmental disasters. Unemployment figures are, however, still high and volatile — even the low of 12.3 percent reached in 2018 was considerably higher than the average for EU countries.

During its two terms in office, Edi Rama’s nominally socialist PS has attracted wide criticism for its ties with business magnates. Even a former foreign minister in Rama’s government, Ditmir Bushati, denounced the problem, as he pointed out that national wealth is concentrated in the hands of four of five oligarchs. Along with critical views from within the PS, the government has faced clear discontent, reflected in numerous and massive protests organized by students, mine workers, and opposition leaders.

Rama’s administration has also courted controversy for its use of public funds, spending more than €40 million on renovating government buildings in a country where GDP per capita is only $4,700. Other scandals include one of its interior ministers being accused of drug trafficking, as well as wider claims of a lack of transparency in public procurement. Illustrating the prevalence of this issue in Albanian politics, in September 2020, PD’s parliamentary group even filed a lawsuit against then–defense minister Olta Xhaçka and interior minister Sandër Lleshaj.

While these parties have dominated the post-transition period, there have been occasional signs of alternatives emerging. Erion Veliaj, mayor of the capital, Tirana, started his political career in 2009 by founding a new party called G99; it originated in Levizja Mjaft, a social movement created in 2003 to protest poor public services, organized crime, poverty, and discrimination. But Veliaj and a few crucial personalities from G99 later joined PS.

This does not mean that PS is itself a space for critical voices. For this election, it has some new candidates, including Dr Najada Como, a well-respected doctor and director of Tirana’s hospital of infectious diseases who has been on the front lines of the COVID-19 battle and has become a beloved figure. Yet it has also excluded thirty-five well-known left-wing personalities from its list; former foreign minister Ditmir Bushati has also been dropped, following his criticism of the party’s ties to oligarchs.

Miner Parties

The situation for forces outside the PS has, however, slightly changed. In 2020, the parliament amended the electoral code: one measure lowered the election threshold, meaning a party needs just 1 percent across Albania to qualify for parliamentary representation. This will doubtless ease the path of new parties. Moreover, a whole generation that was born after the fall of the Hoxhaist regime are now running for election outside the lists of the two main parties, and no longer so governed by rival attitudes toward the communist era as the PS-PD duo.

One especially promising candidacy is miners’ union leader Elton Debreshi, an independent backed by activists from OP (Organizata Politike), the largest leftist organization in Albania. Debreshi’s program combines local issues (improved transportation, the protection of forests and rivers) with a wider focus on workers’ rights and social rights. These demands especially arise from the dire working conditions in the Albanian mining industry, where the last half century has seen 531 deaths due to poor safety measures.

Debreshi is running in Dibra, in one of the poorest regions in Albania, and is combining a bid for improved status for miners with a broader social program. Albania does still have elements of a universal health care system, currently offering a free full checkup once per year for those aged between thirty-five and seventy years old. Debreshi promises to fight for special health care conditions to be given to mine workers and extend the yearly checkup to full checkups twice a year, along with free treatment of occupational diseases and full refunds for medication.

Another force on the Left of Albanian politics is Lëvizja Vetëvendosje (LVV, Self-Determination Movement), a progressive party that recently won a landslide 50 percent vote in neighboring Kosovo. It is backing three independent candidates: Boiken Abazi, Iliaz Shehu, and Kreshnik Merxhani. The involvement of Vetëvendosje in Albanian politics signals its commitment to advance a possible unification. Albin Kurti, the historical leader of LVV, has publicly stated that, in a hypothetical future referendum on  unification, he would vote in favor.

One of the candidates LVV supports, Boiken Abazi, is a well-known activist. Previously connected to the Mjaft Movement and Tirana mayor Erion Veliaj, Abazi joined LVV and quickly became a crucial figure in the party, becoming its international spokesman. Abazi is running in the Tirana region; the main point of his electoral program consists in the proposal of a new economic deal that would fight poverty through soft loans, protection of natural resources, and a gradual replacement of imported products with Albanian ones.

Another LVV-backed candidate, Iliaz Shehu, is running in his hometown of Lezha. His political program calls for a higher budget in the health sector (from 5.2 to 9.9 percent of GDP) and a higher budget in education (rising from 3.6 to 4.9 percent), bringing Albania up to the EU standard. Kreshnik Merxhani, an architect by profession, is running in Gjirokastra, a region he knows well due to his work on the preservation of its cultural heritage, which also plays an important role in his program.

Online Politics

Also illustrative of the more general rise of new forces is a party called Thurje (hashtag), which was established in 2014 and quickly turned into a popular grassroots movement. Pre-election polls, organized by IPSOS–TCH, point to the strong likelihood that Thurje will pass the threshold for election.

Thurje’s initial campaign was financed through crowdfunding mechanisms — some achievement in a country where political parties are often accused of close ties with the economic oligarchy. Its program represents what might be called a courageous attempt to reconcile an unlikely array of policies: it seeks to open the Albanian market to foreign investment, while also opposing the outsourcing of public services to private firms. It also proposes a universal basic income for every Albanian family in order to ensure that essential costs are covered. Its most prominent figure is Endri Shabani, a young Oxford graduate who has in recent years become one of the main Albanian opposition leaders.

The new political alternatives, each in their own way, propose solutions that promise to reduce the gap between the haves and the have-nots, improve living standards, and, above all, provide transparent policy and financing mechanisms. In this sense, the current political climate in Albania brings to mind the Spain and Greece of recent years, where the financial crisis induced the creation of parties like Podemos and Syriza.

Those parties’ political trajectory was a reminder that, for change to succeed, it should go beyond the local and national levels alone. As Osip Mandelstam put it back in 1923, “To free the age from its captivity / To create a brand-new world / The discordant, tangled days / Must be linked, as with a flute.” The link in our times seems to be a general discontent that has started to take form simultaneously but separately in different European countries. In Albania, at least, there is an air of forthcoming change.