Elections in Albania (II)

A few weeks back, I blogged a little about the upcoming elections in Albania. Here’s a bit more.

The elections are expected to be close, because the ruling Socialist Party is split. The larger faction supports the current Prime Minister, Fatos Nano. But a breakaway group, under an ex-weightlifter named Ilir Meta, has organized itself into the Socialist Movement for Integration (SMI). The SMI is running a strong third in the polls and might well hold the balance of power between the two larger parties.

Meta used to be Prime Minister himself. To make a long and really complicated story short, Nano engineered his downfall back in 2001; both men were Socialists, but Nano wanted to be Prime Minister himself. Meta didn’t take it well.

The two major candidates — Nano and Democrat Sali Berisha — held a televised debate, Albania’s first ever, next week. (Meta was excluded, much to his irritation.) Although Berisha and Nano loathe each other, the debate went off without a hitch.

In some previous Albanian elections, foreign governments weren’t too shy about letting their preferences be known. In this one, though, they’re playing it cool. It’s more or less an open secret that nobody much wants Berisha back; he’s seen as authoritarian and, worse, erratic. Nano has delivered several years of economic growth and has pursued a modest, low-profile course in international relations. So insofar as other countries are taking an interest, they’re generally rooting for Nano. But… quietly.

And, realistically, it’s probably not going to make a huge difference if one wins or the other. Albania will still be the second or third poorest country in Europe, and its daunting problems — corruption, brain drain, pervasive organized crime — will remain.

So why should anyone outside Albania care who wins?

Two reasons. One, Albania is connected to Kosovo, and Kosovo is connected to Serbia and Macedonia. Kosovo’s independence will go on the table next year, and it’s going to be a rather delicate operation. The best guess is that a Nano government would be “better” — in the sense of being quieter, less inclined to meddle, and more willing to go along with the international community. A Berisha government would be… well, unpredictable.

Two — Albania is a majority Muslim country. And it’s about to hold an election that will probably be, more or less, free, fair, and peaceful. (I know this sounds bizarre, but as far as I can tell no English-language commentator seems to have picked up on this.) The list of Islamic countries to have done this is not an overly long one; depending on how you define “free”, “fair” and “peaceful”, it’s somehere between two and maybe seven.

It’s premature to say much about an election that hasn’t happened yet. But if it goes off without violence or fraud, and results in a government that’s both legitimate and stable, then it’ll be a bit more than just another election in a minor state of the European periphery.

The election is on Sunday. More next week.

4 thoughts on “Elections in Albania (II)

  1. Mr. Muir, send to Nano this article. You can win some money, not e few but much. And if you will write another one you could profit more. nano doesn’t serve gifts for friends.

  2. While your point about Albania being a majority Muslim country and having free elections is valid, I think that Albania is different from other Muslim countries. Firstly, it is much more secular than any other Muslim country (except perhaps Bosnia and Herzegovina), and also it doesn’t share Islamic or Arabic culture. Islam is not a big part of people’s lives as it is in other countries. Therefore, I don’t think it’s fair to Albania to *expect* it somehow to act like other Muslim countries or to commend it for being different, when Albania is a secular European country, with European culture.

  3. While Albania is a majority Muslim country by historic (pre-1945) denomination, I’d agree with Mihai that grouping Albania with “Islamic countries” is to overstretch that fact quite a bit. After all, we’re talking here about what used to be “the world’s first atheist state” until 15 years ago – what followed since in religious terms could be described as a postmodern and individualistic free-for-all mixing islam, christianity, ancient superstitions, and modern esoteric fancy.

  4. I agree with Mihai and Georg on the religious issue. The last statistics (showing 70% of the population being Muslim) were taken before World War 2 and even those were probably not accurate since people were often officialy Muslim in order not to pay a tax under the Ottoman Empire and secretly Orthodox Christian or Catholics. I have no idea to what extent this phenomenon could have existed but I know it for a fact regarding my Muslim ancestors.

    Today the majority of people are atheists or slightly supersititous, with the dominant religions being Islam (2 branches, I believe), Catholicism and Orthodoxy. This is also reflected in the national holidays (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Public_holidays_in_Albania). Also the major religious event (not holiday) is a yearly pilgrimage at the shrine of Shna Ndua (Saint Anthony of Padua), a Catholic event in which about 200 thousand people take part every year, Catholics Orthodoxs, and Muslims alike (pictures: http://www.bevisfusha.com/bevis/gallery/shnando). Religion rarely plays any role (when so, mostly in rural areas) in marriages and almost never in personal relations…

    Anyway, enough about religions. Doug, I am certain that the Nano-Berisha debate never took place. It was basically a debate on whether the debate would take place and both sides ended up by blaming the other for the failure. There will be separate interviews on a couple of TV channels I believe today & tomorrow for Nano, Berisha and Meta one after another, but never simultaneously in the same studio — unless an unexpected last-minute change (Saturday is a day of electoral silence).