With flames and smoke bombs, jostling lawmakers and chairs piled up in front of the speakers’ podium, Monday’s debate on the 2024 budget in the Albanian parliament certainly did not go smoothly.
This is not the first time proceedings in the Albanian parliament have been interrupted in this way. There have been several incidents of this kind in recent weeks.
The chaos in the parliament chamber was instigated by a group of members of the opposition Democratic Party (DP) led by former Prime Minister Sali Berisha. The DP launched a campaign of political disruption — which it called “Battle in parliament, dialog with citizens” — in early November.
Amid the commotion and the smoke, the DP did not have enough votes on its own to stop the ruling Socialist Party (SP) from approving the state budget for 2024. But was the disruption even about the budget? And if not, what is really behind this extraordinary campaign of upheaval?
Albanian politics plagued by ‘overlapping crises’
Sali Berisha said on Monday that the purpose of the disturbance was “to restore the constitutional rights of the parliamentary opposition and members of the opposition violated by the socialist majority.”
Lutfi Dervishi, former executive director of Transparency International Albania says that the current political activities of the opposition are the result of “an overlapping of several crises in Albania.”
“There is a crisis in the way parliament functions that comes from the arrogance of the socialist majority and its non-respect of the constitution,” Dervishi told DW. “The demand for the establishment of investigative commissions is a constitutional right, which the socialist majority denies the opposition.”
‘Arrogance of the socialist majority’
According to Dervishi, there are other examples of the authoritarian style of SP’s parliamentary majority: “There is the personalization of power and the rejection of consultations on controversial decisions,” he said.
The most recent illustration of this, he adds, was the agreement signed in early November by Albanian prime minister Edi Rama and Italian prime minister Giorgia Meloni on setting up in Albania two centers to host migrants from North Africa and the Middle East who were rescued at sea. “It was signed in darkness and with a total lack of transparency,” says Dervishi.
Former PM charged with corruption
There are, however, other factors at play in the recent parliamentary turbulence. At the end of October, Berisha and his son-in-law were charged with corruption by prosecutors of Albania’s Special Anti-Corruption and Organized Crime Structure (SPAK). The charges relate to a land deal involving the grounds of a sports’ club in the Albanian capital, Tirana.
Berisha’s son-in-law was arrested, and Berisha himself, who enjoys immunity from prosecution as a lawmaker, was ordered to report twice a month to the judicial police — which he has so far refused to do — and prohibited from traveling abroad.
Berisha has accused Rama of orchestrating the prosecution against him, an accusation Rama denies.
But not everyone in the DP is behind Berisha. His opponents within the party claim that the real reason for these attempts to block parliament is that Berisha wants to protect his “vital interests” — in other words his family’s wealth — from SPAK investigators.
Opposition party in crisis
The start of the current tension and chaos in parliament coincides not only with start of the investigations into Berisha but also with a deepening of the crisis within the DP.
This crisis began two years ago when Berisha was excluded from the parliamentary party after he was publicly designated by the United States and barred from traveling there because of “involvement in significant corruption” in May 2021.
The DP parliamentary party subsequently split into two factions, one that backed Berisha and one that opposed him. Since then, the two factions have failed to resolve their differences and stand as a viable political alternative to the SP.
The leadership of the party is key to overcoming division
“Berisha is holding both the party’s division and its unity hostage,” Aleksander Cipa, chairman of the Union of Albanian Journalists, told DW. “His political actions suggest that the DP can only be united on one non-negotiable condition: Either he becomes the party leader again or he trusts someone else to lead it.”
Other experts feel that although the DP is deeply divided, there is a way out of the current crisis. “The DP needs an open-minded, sincerely democratic leader,” says Fatos Tarifa, professor of Sociology and International Relations at the University of New York Tirana.
“The only solution for the DP is to once and for all get rid of Berisha, open up to criticism and reorganize itself, rally behind a democratic leader, and actively participate in the parliament and political life of the country,” Tarifa told DW.
In the three decades since the collapse of communism in Albania, the opposition has never been weaker than it is today. Rama’s government, which is currently serving its third term, is firmly in the driving seat.
“There are no political alternatives in Albania. Prime Minister Rama is currently stronger than ever. The only opposition to his governance is SPAK,” said Lutfi Dervishi.
The European Commission’s Albania 2023 Report voiced concern about the seemingly unlimited power of the government and the fact that the parliament, judiciary and Albanian society as a whole were unable to limit this power. “Parliament’s oversight of the executive remained limited,” said the report. “Public consultation with civil society and interest groups remained formal.”
Dismantling Albania’s culture of impunity
Albania has introduced a number of judicial reforms in recent years in the hope that these will smooth its path towards membership of the European Union. Some Albanians now hope that this will mean that corrupt politicians will no longer get off scot-free in the future.
Lutfi Dervishi believes that this will take time: “Reformed justice is still in its initial phase. It will take time for Albania to have proper justice with judges of indisputable integrity.”
The case against Berisha will be a test of whether the culture of impunity in Albania really is being dismantled. If investigations into his and his family’s dealings are postponed or prolonged indefinitely, there is a risk of a dramatic collapse of trust in the judiciary and a strong politicization of the new Albanian justice system.
But not everyone is pessimistic. “I sincerely believe that justice reform is moving ahead,” Prof. Fatos Tarifa told DW. “The case of Berisha and his family will prove my optimism and the optimism and hopes of most of Albanians.”
Edited by: Aingeal Flanagan