Votes are still being counted in Albania, but it appears that the governing coalition has lost by a large margin - an indication of widespread dissatisfaction with long-term leader Sali Berisha.
With almost three-quarters of the results now in in the Albanian elections, the opposition Alliance for a European Albania appears to have garnered more than 50 percent of the vote. The left-leaning alliance, led by the Socialist Party, is ahead even in the northern strongholds of Prime Minister Sali Berisha's ruling Democratic Party (PD).
The PD's right-leaning electoral coalition, the Alliance for Work, Welfare and Integration, campaigned under the slogan "We are the change - onward!" This was "intended to emphasize that Albania has already become an open, modern society," according to Thomas Schrapel, the head of the Albanian bureau of Germany's Konrad Adenauer Foundation (KAS). In this sense, then, the PD stood for a change that has already taken place - whereas the opposition alliance, led by the Socialist Edi Rama (seen in the photo above), was campaigning for a total "renaissance."
However, Schrapel points out that, in the language of Albanian politics, "left" and "right" do not really correlate with a German understanding of these terms: "At present, there are hardly any obvious ideological differences between the two parties that could justify positioning them in the right or left camp."
Dissatisfaction with Berisha's government
It's not just the lack of substance in the governing coalition's political manifesto that has brought about its defeat, according to Artan Puto, a political scientist at the University of Tirana. He believes the main reason why voters have deserted it in droves is because they have had enough of Sali Berisha's authoritarian government. Berisha has been the dominant force in Albanian politics since the fall of the Communist dictatorship.
"Berisha tried to dominate all three spheres of state authority: the legislature, the executive and the judiciary," Puto told DW. "He also wanted to concentrate not just political power but also economic power in his own hands, or in the hands of a small coterie of people closely connected to him. On top of that, Berisha's government was unable to get to grips with the country's serious economic problems." The election result was his punishment at the hands of the electors.
Both the major parties made much of the difficult social circumstances in Albania, and promised to create lots of new jobs. But Luan Hajdaraga, a Tirana political analyst, believes Berisha's failure to keep a promise made at the last election, to solve Albania's massive social problems, was another key reason for his defeat.
"During the election campaign Berisha was rushing about from the ceremonial opening of one stretch of road to another. But these have made little contribution to improving social conditions for Albanian people," Hajdaraga commented in an interview with DW. "Also, he's not going to win any votes if he doesn't tell the voters what he's achieved during his time in office, only what he plans to do during his next term."
Albania's Democrats and Socialists are both in favor of the country's political integration into Europe, and of strengthening ties across the Atlantic. Ideologically, the two sides are very close. In terms of actual political content too there is little to choose between them. "There were hardly any credible or comprehensible differences between their election manifestos," says Schrapel. A new government is therefore unlikely to have noticeably different policies.
Free, and quite fair
In procedural terms, it looks as if these parliamentary elections were the most successful in Albania to date, despite being overshadowed by an exchange of fire in the town of Lac at the weekend in which a left-wing activist was killed and a Democratic Party candidate wounded.
According to Roberto Battelli, the Special Coordinator leading the short term election observer mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), a great deal of progress has been made in comparison with the parliamentary elections of 2009, or the local elections in 2011. "The elections were free and, according to my opinion, quite fair," was Battelli's verdict.
Schrapel agrees: "It's to the credit of the current prime minister, Berisha, that there were no excesses to speak of. He made clear early on that he would recognize the official results of the election commission."
Schrapel comments that this was very important in terms of Albania's efforts to join the EU. These elections came in for especially close scrutiny, as Albania is likely to be granted EU candidate status in the near future.
The EU has rejected Albania's application for candidacy three times in a row. One of the reasons for this was that, since making the transition from Communism two decades ago, the country had never managed to hold an election that met international standards of fairness and transparency. Brussels had warned that this election would be seen as a test of Albania's democratic maturity.
Almost all political observers agree that, if the Socialists are victorious, there will be considerable upheaval in the state apparatus. Edi Rama's coalition partner, Ilir Meta, of the Socialist Movement for Integration (LSI), switched allegiance from Berisha's coalition just before the election campaign began. He has promised his supporters jobs in public administration. Cronyism is rife in Albanian society, and after an election it is usual for representatives of the winning party to take over almost all the posts in the public administration system.