A very public war of words is raging between the current and former leaders of Albania’s main opposition party, the centre-right Democratic Party.
After current Democratic Party leader Lulzim Basha excluded former party leader Sali Berisha, who has served as Albania’s president and prime minister, from the party’s parliamentary group, Berisha embarked on a tour of the country to drum up support for his cause among party activists.
The ongoing spat has diverted attention away from the rivalry between the ruling Socialists, which started their third term in office this month, and the opposition Democrats, which recently returned to Parliament after a lengthy boycott.
Basha decided to exclude Berisha from the Democrats’ parliamentary group after the latter was named by the US State Department as persona non grata due to his involvement in “significant corruption” in May.
“In his official capacity as prime minister of Albania in particular, Berisha was involved in corrupt acts, such as misappropriation of public funds and interfering with public processes, including using his power for his own benefit and to enrich his political allies and his family members at the expense of the Albanian public’s confidence in their government institutions and public officials,” the May statement from the State Department said.
While a statement from US Secretary of State Antony Blinken did not specify the nature of the corruption, as bne IntelliNews reported back in 2013, Berisha has been linked to scandals such as the flawed privatisation of state oil firm Albpetrol.
Basha, a former protege of Berisha’s, announced on September 9 that he had decided, at the request of the US, to ban Berisha from joining the Democratic Party parliamentary group, as MPs prepared to return to Parliament.
The US embassy commended the decision on September 10, writing: “The difficult decision announced yesterday by chairman Lulzim Basha deserves respect. This decision demonstrates that – as was the case 30 years ago and at other critical moments in Albania’s history – the Democratic Party has the courage to break from the past in order to build the future, to help lead Albania forward. The United States has had a special relationship with the Democratic Party from its founding and we look forward to working more closely than ever with chairman Basha and the Democratic Party to strengthen US-Albania relations.”
Berisha dominated the political scene as prime minister and president from 1991 to 2013. He was Albania’s second post-Communist president, holding the post from 1992 to 1997, going on to become prime minister from 2005 to 2013, which makes him Albania’s longest-serving democratically elected leader. He twice headed the Democratic Party, which has been in opposition since he resigned in 2013, when the Democrats were ousted from power by the Socialists led by Albania’s current prime minister, Edi Rama.
He responded to his expulsion from the Democrats’ parliamentary group by calling on Basha to resign following the two general election defeats for the party under his leadership, and called the decision “amoral [and] humiliating”.
“For eight years Edi Rama stayed in power because he is in the market with someone [Basha] who is very pleased to stay in opposition for another 80 years,” Berisha wrote on his Facebook page on September 22, calling Basha a “hostage” to Rama.
Basha was mayor of Tirana from 2011 to 2015, having previously served as first minister of public works, transport and telecommunications and later as interior minister under Berisha.
After the loss of the April 2021 election – which Basha called an “electoral massacre” and claimed was rigged – several high ranking members of the Democratic Party called on him to resign. However, he successfully stood for re-election as party leader in the summer leadership election.
Nonetheless, a Euronews Albania poll shows a high level of dissatisfaction among party members about his decision to expel Berisha, with 71% of respondents opposed to the move.
Berisha remains popular among many party supporters; a large group turned out to cheer him when he entered the parliament on September 10, and videos posted on his Facebook page show crowds at his public meeting in the city of Fier on September 21.