Berisha Poll Disappointment

Sali Berisha comes under pressure to step down as head of Albania's main opposition party after its poor showing in local elections.

Berisha Poll Disappointment

Sali Berisha comes under pressure to step down as head of Albania's main opposition party after its poor showing in local elections.

Tuesday, 6 September, 2005

The leader of the opposition Democratic Party of Albania, DPA, Sali Berisha, is being urged to resign after the ruling Socialist's victory in municipal elections.

The Socialists, led by former prime minister Fatos Nano, made big gains in the October 1 poll, seizing control of several local authorities held by the DPA since 1996. They won 27 of the 65 mayorial races, the DPA triumphed in just nine. The Central Election Commission, CEC, said run-offs would be held in 40 per cent of the 385 municipalities and communes on October 15.

Berisha described the results as a "shameful joke" but said his party would have to decide how to respond to the ballot.

In the run up to the poll, international and opposition pressure had forced the CEC to up the number of registered voters from 2.3 million to 2.7 million. The government claimed the registration problems were down to the DPA-controlled local authorities, which had deliberately miscalculated voter numbers knowing they faced defeat.

Berisha issued several warnings before the election he would not accept the results. Only intervention from the international community, principally the United States, prevented him from boycotting the poll.

The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe and Berisha have been at odds since the 1997 general elections. Berisha accused the OSCE, and its election monitoring branch ODIHR, of favouring the Socialist Party and demanded the Council of Europe oversee the 1997 poll. He was finally obliged to back down.

The OSCE, the Council of Europe, the US and European governments have all acclaimed the October 1 poll as fair and well-run. No mean achievement in post-Communist Albania which has been plagued by instability and political violence.

Election campaigns were once again dominated by rallies where party leaders stoked up tension by abusing and insulting political rivals. Berisha and Nano branded one another the 'Albanian Milosevic'.

On polling day, US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright intervened sending a letter via her special envoy Robert Frowick asking both leaders to accept the results in a manner fitting to their positions as leaders.

Following his defeat, Berisha is facing intensified calls to resign and allow the DPA to reform. Some party officials labelled Berisha's strategy 'adventurous' and called on him to accept the results. They criticised his stance as inappropriate and liable to engender 'dangerous tensions' in the country. The DPA's poor showing has been laid squarely at the door of Berisha's volatile personality.

Prior to the election Berisha said a vote for the DPA was a vote for him.

"I am ashamed of myself because I promised I would never vote for the Communists," said one Tirana voter. "But how can I vote for that man?"

In an interview for the Albania newspaper, DPA deputy Genc Pollo called on Berisha not to hold the party "hostage for your survival".

In the election's most heated and interesting race, Minister of Culture Edi Rama defeated the DPA candidate Besnik Mustafaj, former Ambassador to France under Berisha, to become the new mayor of Tirana.

Rama, a controversial artist and outspoken critic of Berisha, who was beaten in 1996 by men believed to be with the secret police, focused his campaign on improving life in the country's tattered capital.

When asked in a televised debate what advantages he had over Rama, Mustafaj replied that he represented the forces of democracy over communism.

According to preliminary results, Mustafaj garnered three per cent more of the vote than the DPA nationally, suggesting perhaps that the party's supporters appreciate a different approach from that offered by Berisha.

The local elections serve as an indicator for the 2001 general elections. The results suggest the DPA needs to rethink policy and campaign strategy, if not its leadership.

Prime Minister Ilir Meta, 31, was under intense pressure from the international community to ensure the October 1 poll passed off peacefully. He deployed 1,300 troops at key points around Tirana with orders to shoot anyone attempting to enter government institutions by force - a clear warning to Berisha's supporters. No previous government has issued such a blunt threat.

The international community has made clear it expects political parties in Albania to behave in a responsible, calm and democratic fashion. If not they will withdraw from the tiny country. A consolidated opposition is essential to democracy, but it must fight in a democratic way.

Now the Socialists control national government and many local authorities expectations are high. The money is there. The government has only to use it efficiently to bring about the changes needed to improve people's quality of life.

But unless results are felt swiftly, Berisha, who is likely to tough-out internal party challenges, could be well placed to stage a comeback at next year's general elections.

Llazar Semini is IWPR's Project Manager in Kosovo. Fred Abrahams is currently writing a book on Albania's transition to democracy.

Albania, Kosovo
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