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Exit polls suggest tight race in Albania’s parliamentary election

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A woman casts her ballot during the parliamentary election in Tirana [Florion Goga/Reuters]
A woman casts her ballot during the parliamentary election in Tirana [Florion Goga/Reuters]

Albania’s ruling Socialist Party looked set to narrowly win Sunday’s (25 April) national election and secure a third term for Prime Minister Edi Rama, an exit poll showed.

According to Top Channel TV’s exit poll, the Socialists were set to win 46.9% of the vote, which would give them a slight majority of 71 seats in the 140-seat parliament.

The Democratic Party, led by Lulzim Basha, were set to win 43.5% of the vote while another smaller opposition party, the Socialist Integration Movement, was forecast to come third with 6.9 percent of the vote.

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The exit poll run for Euronews Albania from the MRB, part of the London-based Kantar Group, projects that the Socialists will win about 44% of the vote while the Democratic Party is expected to capture about 42%.

Official results are not expected before later today (26 April).

“The process was characterized by a calm situation, security and integrity,” said Ilirjan Celibashi, head of the Central Election Commission. He said the winner would be known “in 48 hours”.

Albania, which has a population of 2.8 million, but 3.6 million voters due to its large diaspora, has a history of violence and allegations of fraud during elections in the 30 years since the end of communism.

On Wednesday, a Socialist Party supporter was killed and four people were injured during a shootout following a dispute between Socialist and Democratic supporters.

Albania was granted European Union candidate status in 2014, but there has been little progress due to enlargement fatigue around the bloc and lack of reforms within Albania.

Voters are eager for an end to widespread corruption. Albania ranks 104th in Transparency International’s 180-nation list for 2020 and is accused by the United States of being a major source for marijuana production and other drug shipments.

Rama, a 56-year-old painter and former basketball player, has been in power for eight years.

Orestia Nano, an artist, said her main motive to vote was to end corruption.

“When I entered the University of Arts there were people of my age who paid money to get into the school. There are people who have to pay money to get health treatments (in state hospitals),” she told Reuters news agency.

“It (corruption) is pretty bad at really high levels.”

The new government will have to deal with the coronavirus pandemic and rebuilding homes after a 2019 earthquake that killed 51 people and damaged more than 11,400 residences.

Albania

Everything but full membership

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Two prime ministers were particularly incensed after the latest European Council held on the 24-25 of June, writes Simone Galimberti.

As already well reported it should not be surprising given the clashes over the EU fundamental values in relation to LGBTQI discriminatory legislation but what is more interesting is that the two prime ministers who were extremely disappointed were not even in the room during the summit.

Far from Brussels, Edi Rama and Zoran Zaev, respectively the prime minister of Albania and North Macedonia, did not shy away from criticizing the members of the European Council for not giving the green light to start the official membership negotiations for their nations.

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Though the entire fault went to a veto imposed by Bulgaria on North Macedonia’s membership and with a common position that such negotiations with both countries should start only at the same time, the true is that not all the members are fully on board on taking this huge step that, even after an intense and prolonged negotiations that might take a decade or more, would risk weakening the Union while widening it.

With still so much blaming going on President Macron for vetoing the starting of the formal access phase back in 2019, observers fear that the EU is losing an important opportunity by blocking two nations that, in the past decade, have shown high commitment and determination to prepare themselves for this key moment.

The risk of loss of confidence and trust among the people in both North Macedonia and Albania in the process of joining the Union should not be underestimated as well as the perils that other hegemonic powers, namely Russia and China, could take advantage of the situation and expand their influence at the door steps of the European Union.

In these circumstances it is almost ironic that the European Commission’s strategy document for Western Balkans ‘accession process published in 2020 and entitled Enhancing the accession process - A credible EU perspective for the Western Balkans talks about trust, confidence building and higher levels of predictability for the membership process to be effective and productive.

Yet postponing the official beginning of the negotiations could be the best thing that Prime Ministers Rama and Zaev might wish for as longer-term considerations must prevail over short-term pressure to start at the soonest.

It should not just be some whims by Sofia that are stalling the access but should be a deliberate and a commonly agreed strategic approach that would safeguard not only the future prosperity of the entire Union but it is entire survival.

It is also not just an apparent loss of confidence among the citizens of the EU in the entire project of regional integration as shown by many survey that, a further expansion, will furtherly aggravate.

With the European Commission opening a legal case against Germany over the primacy of the European Law over the national laws, an issue that as correctly explained by Commissioner Reynders might engender the Union itself, a discussion on possible changes to the Lisbon Treaty must be inevitable even the member states will be dragged into this reluctantly.

There is a compelling case for an overall improvement in the working mechanisms of the Union starting with the need of adding public health to the list of competences shared between the member states and the European Commission.

More urgent than ever is the need to do away with unanimity rule in the Common Foreign and Security Policy and in addition there is the imperative of furthering strengthening the role of the European Parliament that still lacks the power of initiative without forgetting options of a directly elected President of the European Commission and a possible institutional evolution of both the European Council and the Council of the European Union.

Lastly the latest comments of Slovenian Prime Minister, Janez Janša, now presiding the EU rotating presidency about “imaginary European values” further demand a much stronger EU rule of law and democracy mechanism than the half-baked, compromised solution now available achieved after prolonged negotiations.

While this might appear as an ambitious agenda, the leaders of the European Union, especially if there will be a change in government in Berlin in Autumn, will have to face the reality and deal with it: a Union that cannot deliver its increasingly ambitious agenda cannot simply allow a new round of enlargement without first putting its home in order.

Hopefully the Conference on the Future of Europe might create an appetite for initiating such internal debate even if this will make some of the member states uncomfortable at first but possible changes of government in Budapest in 2022 and in Warsaw in 2023 might prelude to the inevitable decision that a new treaty is what the Union needs.

Does it mean that Albania and North Macedonia should wait indefinitely amid this very uncertain and unpredictable scenario?

Not necessarily but their goals in terms of joining the EU must be revised without necessarily diminishing their stature and importance.

The proposal would be an “Everything but Full Membership” approach, an idea that in the past also envisioned the creation of the so called “Associated Membership”, would give to the most promising candidates, in this case North Macedonia and Albania, a full access to all the programs currently being implemented by the Union but without full membership to the Council.

Instead, the European Council could envision a mandatory configuration with the participation of heads of governments of Albania and North Macedonia preceding its full fledged sessions in which the two countries could be even invited to join as well but without voting rights.

Likewise, the European Parliament could accommodate the representatives of these two countries who would be able to join all the full plenaries and all the working committees.

The status of the MEPs from North Macedonia and Albania would hold the status of Associated Members of the European Parliament without voting rights but right to speak and make proposals.

There is no doubt that such arrangements might be rejected as incapable to respect not only the dignity but also as unable to reflect the full aspirations of two nations that undoubtedly deserve full membership of the Union.

Yet such proposals should not be seen as a rejection to Albania and North Macedonia’ right to a full membership but as a pragmatic step towards that goal.

If there are clear limitations on the side of the institutional arrangements, the citizens of these two nations could take advantage of a full array of advantages that the citizens of other EU nations are already enjoying, including full access to a common market that, as proposed by the think tank European Stability Initiative, would imply a two stage process that would follow the two steps approach undertaken by Finland before its full membership.

The Commission itself also has forecasted one scenario establishing a full Regional Economic Area by

2035 rather than full membership.

In addition, full access to the common job market could be envisioned by progressively opening up Schengen to the citizens of North Macedonia and Albania who will also benefit by the strengthening of a very promising idea, the so called Western Balkans Agenda on Innovation, Research, Education, Culture, Youth and Sports.

If it is positive that between 2015 to 2025, the Erasmus + program welcomed around 49,000 students and staff in the higher education in exchange programs between the EU and Western Balkans, the number of students from North Macedonia and Albania having the opportunity to study with full scholarships in an EU based university should drastically see a drastic increase.

Imagine how Albania and North Macedonia could benefit from fully taking part to the NextGenerationEU program.

The package so far proposed by the European Commission to alleviate the impact of Covid and build forward better is certainly generous but much more should be provided to show how North Macedonia and Albania are fully part of the EU family in terms of tangible benefits.

For sure if the current members of the EU want to lift the economies of North Macedonia and Albania, the already important amounts equivalent to EUR 14.162 billion allocated through Instrument for Pre-accession Assistance (IPA III) as part of 2021-2027 Multiannual Financial Framework through which the strategic Economic and Investment Plan for the Western Balkans is going to be financed, should be further increased while assuring the full mobilization of up to €20 billion envisioned in the next decade under the Western Balkans Guarantee facility.

The advantage of this “Everything but Full Membership”approach is that, while certainly be heavy on the pockets of the taxpayers of the current member states, will allow the member states to enhance their institutions and make them purpose ready to fully welcome new members in the decades ahead.

In this way the strengthening of the working mechanisms of the EU will also allow to counter those nationalist and sovereigntists politicians who, already skeptical of the entire integration process, could certainly use a new enlargement to opportunistically broaden their protest vote base.

Perhaps the upcoming 16th Bled Strategic Forum under the new Slovenian Presidency of the EU could offer a platform to brainstorm novel and fresh ideas of meaningfully strengthening the partnerships between the EU and the two most deserving nations in the Balkans.

If the official programme prepared by the Slovenians for their six months at the helm of the EU says something, the approach to starting the access negotiations will be driven by pragmatism.

No matter President von der Leyen’s eagerness to welcome both Skopje and Tirana to the full negotiation table as clearly stated by her during the so-called College visit to the Slovenian Presidency on 1 July, a pragmatic but very generous realism characterized by true solidarity might instead drive the agenda of the next EU-Western Balkan Summit in October.

Those wholeheartedly supporting Tirana and Skopie’s membership should not only think about creative alternative in the short-medium term to meet the aspirations of their respective citizens, but also be bold to envision a better functioning Union, fit to serve the interests of the citizens of 29 or even more members states.

Simone Galimberti is based in Kathmandu. He writes on social inclusion, youth development and regional integration in Europe and in the Asia Pacific.

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Albania

Albania votes in election amid deep political division

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A deep political split in the Balkan country is expected to deliver a neck-and-neck election between the ruling party and the opposition coalition. The Balkan country with a population of 2.8 million has some 3.6 million voters due to its large diaspora. Albanians headed to the polls in parliamentary elections on Sunday following a bitter campaign and violence between rival supporters

Some 3.6 million eligible voters, including Albanians overseas, will elect 140 lawmakers among some 1,800 candidates. 

Voters have expressed frustration with the politics and economy of the country, which is hoping to launch full membership talks with the EU later this year.  

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Sunday's polls are expected to be neck-and-neck between the ruling Socialists and the opposition. The vote is being closely watched by observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and Western embassies.

Prime Minister Edi Rama has been in power for eight years.

Who is running?  

Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama is seeking a third term for his Socialist Party (PS). His campaign centered around promises of turning Albania into a "champion'' in tourism, energy, agriculture and digital projects. 

Rama's main contender is Lulzim Basha of the opposition Democratic Party (PD), who is seeking a return to power eight years after losing an election. 

Twelve other parties have united in a coalition behind Basha, who has accused the government of corruption and links to organized crime.

The PD is pledging lower taxes, higher salaries and more social financial support.

Pre-election opinion polls showed the PS likely to place first.

Lulzim Basha, a 46-year-old lawyer and former mayor of Tirana, has held previous government posts

What is expected from the winning party? 

Despite their division, all parties have vowed to deliver the needed reforms for Albania to fulfill its goal of joining the EU.

The bloc agreed to open membership talks last year, but is yet to set a date for the first meeting.  

In 2014, Tirana was granted EU candidate status. Still, there has been little progress due to the coronavirus pandemic and lack of reforms within the country. 

The new government will also face the challenge of dealing with the pandemic and rebuilding homes after a 2019 earthquake that killed 51 people and damaged more than 11,400 properties. 

What about the pre-election tensions?  

The Balkan country is deeply divided, with rival political parties exchanging fiery remarks during a bitter election campaign. 

On Wednesday, a shooting that was linked to party activists left one person dead and four injured. 

The incident drew criticism from the US Embassy, which urged the the country's main political leaders to "exercise restraint" and "to clearly reject violence" before the election.

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Albania

Albania’s commitment to defeating anti-Semitism can inspire the region

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Having served almost fifteen years in Parliament, including the last three years as the chairman of the Socialist Party Parliamentary Group, it goes without saying how proud I am of Albania. I am especially proud at this moment, with the Albanian Parliament having just unanimously approved the adoption of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition of anti-Semitism, writes Taulant Balla.

However, it is worth explaining the source of this immense pride. Over the centuries, Albania has endured numerous conquests and occupations. We have weathered this turbulent past and built a thriving democracy and economic stability. Throughout it all, Albania has maintained a distinct, national culture. We have an ancient, unique language unrelated to any other. Most importantly, Albania has also maintained an enduring set of national values.

The story of Albania’s tiny Jewish community perfectly illustrates the principles upon which our country has been built. There has been a Jewish presence in Albania since the Second Century, but by the 1930s its size had dwindled to just 200 people. Soon after the Nazis occupied our country in 1943, they swiftly targeted Albania’s Jews. As one, Albanians stood by their Jewish compatriots. Authorities refused to hand over lists of Jews, while ordinary Albanians – Muslim and Christian alike - risked their own lives by hiding their Jewish neighbors. Not only did Albania’s Jews survive, but their numbers increased by the end of World War Two as Jews found refuge from neighboring countries.

This remarkable and largely untold chapter of Albanian history is no coincidental incident. The sense of honor, trust and respect between Albanians, regardless of religion or faith, is ingrained in Albania’s ethical and moral fabric. It is part of an age-old code known as ‘besa.’ A life infused with ‘besa’ is a life of enduring trust between neighbors, a commitment to do everything possible to help one another. Therefore, saving our country’s Jews from the horrors of Nazism was not simply an exceptional act of heroism during humanity’s darkest hour. It was a matter of national honor, of standing up for what it means to be Albanian.

These values have not disappeared. Far from it. During times of conflict, Albania has continued to be a place of refuge for many. Albanian society continues to be characterized by a sense of unity and commonality, regardless of differences in religion, belief and background. An attack on one Albanian is an attack on all Albanians. That is why I am proud, although not surprised, that Albania’s Parliament, with the widest possible consensus, has just adopted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance working definition of anti-Semitism.

Anti-Semitism is raising its ugly head across the world, even in Europe where the Holocaust remains within living memory for some. The IHRA definition is an internationally accepted standard, which if clarification were needed, makes clear where the scourge of anti-Semitism begins and ends. Adopting the IHRA definition means a genuine commitment towards understanding anti-Semitism, as a first step towards combating it. Adopting the IHRA definition means that although there are only a handful of Jews in our country, we will stand by them and protect them. But IHRA is not just about Jews. Adopting the IHRA definition is a powerful statement of tolerance and respect, that there is no place for bigotry and racism. It is a declaration that every decent society should make.

As such, I hope that the important step which Albania has just taken by adopting the IHRA definition, will prove to be a catalyst for others to follow suit. With that in mind, in partnership with the Combat Anti-Semitism Movement and the Jewish Agency for Israel, as well as with the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress and the Center for Jewish Impact, the Parliament of Albania is this week hosting the first ever Balkans Forum Against Anti-Semitism. Participants include the Speakers of Parliament of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Israel, Kosovo, Montenegro and North Macedonia, plus officials from the international community.

I believe that this historic gathering could not be more timely. Our world is living through chaotic, perhaps unprecedented times. Public, social and economic health seemingly hangs in the balance in countries across the world. This deep sense of uncertainty is the perfect breeding ground for extremism. As the corona virus pandemic has intensified, so too have rates of anti-Semitism and other forms of racism. For the sake of our future not only in Albania, but in the Balkans, in Europe and beyond, we must not allow extremism to flourish.  Adopting the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism is one of the most meaningful antidotes we possess.

Taulant Balla is the chairman of the Socialist Party Parliamentary Group of the Republic of Albania.

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