There is no sign of a respite in the infighting between rival factions of Albania’s opposition Democratic Party in the run-up to the country’s May local elections, leaving the way clear for another resounding Socialist victory a decade after the party came to power at state level.
The ongoing struggle for control between Sali Berisha, who was elected party leader by members in May 2022, and Enkelejd Alibeaj, who leads the party’s parliamentary group, has dragged on for months, with both factions seeking to register the party for the May 14 local elections.
After initially rejecting both sides’ requests, the Central Electoral Committee decided following an appeal to accept Alibeaj’s request to register the Democratic Party for the election.
Berisha, meanwhile, has agreed to join forces with former president Ilir Meta’s Freedom Party and some smaller opposition parties and field joint candidates, selected through primaries they are currently organising.
Previously, the CEC said Lulzim Basha, who stepped down as leader of the Democratic Party a year ago, is still officially its leader, as control was never formally handed over to Berisha, and has the right to register it for the upcoming local elections. Basha has delegated leadership of the party to Alibeaj.
In the latest development, Alibeaj has called on the CEC to deregister Berisha’s list.
The rupture within the Democratic Party follows a lengthy power struggle between Berisha and the party’s former leader Lulzim Basha that culminated in an attempt by Berisha’s supporters to storm the party headquarters in Tirana in January 2022.
Polls in recent months have shown a disillusioned and polarised electorate with no politician, ruling party or opposition, having widespread appeal.
The Euronews Albania Barometer, for example, showed that more Albanians disapproved of Rama than approved of him, but he fared much better than opposition politicians such as Alibeaj, Berisha or Meta, whose ratings were overwhelmingly negative.
Berisha is a controversial politician who was named persona non grata by the US State Department in May 2021 due to his involvement in “significant corruption”, a statement from Secretary of State Antony Blinken said at the time.
Along with Berisha, his wife Liri Berisha and children Shkelzen Berisha and Argita Berisha Malltezi were also banned from travelling to the US.
After Berisha was blacklisted, Basha expelled him from the party’s parliamentary group, after which Berisha launched his campaign to regain control of the party.
His combative relationship with Alibeaj was clear when Berisha publicly pushed Alibeaj off the parliament podium in a televised incident in April 2022.
With the divided Democrats unlikely to regain lost support unless they resolve their differences, the Socialists appear to be heading for another election victory at the local elections in May.
That follows three consecutive general election victories, in 2013, 2017 and 2021, and a walkover in the last local elections in 2019, which were boycotted by the opposition.
Local by-elections held in March 2022 showed the Socialists remain strong vis a vis the opposition. The Socialists won five of the six by-elections and Berisha’s faction one. The failure of Basha’s faction to gain any seats eventually pushed him to resign.
The lack of an effective opposition is a worrying situation, as international observers have pointed to the misuse of administrative resources by the ruling party in recent elections.
The international observation mission for the 2021 general election commented in its report on the vote that the ruling Socialist Party "derived significant advantage from its incumbency, including through its control of local administrations, and from misuse of administrative resources. This was amplified by positive coverage of state institutions in the media.”