October 2, 2010 § Leave a comment

AlbaniaWho lives there?: About 3.5 million people, half a million of whom live in the capital Tirana.

How does the system work? (the theory): The  president is indirectly elected every five years by a first past the post election of the assembly.

Executive power rests in part with the president but primarily with the cabinet and Prime Minister. The Prime Minister is appointed by the President but the cabinet needs the support of the Assembly to govern.

The legislative branch is unicameral. 140 members are elected every 4 years by closed list proportional representation. Parties could register as electoral coalitions before the elections. The 12 regions of Albania each act as constituencies with each electing between 4 and 32 members. For reasons best known to themselves seats are divided between electoral coalitions by the d’Hondt formula and then divided between parties within the coalition by the Sainte-Laguë formula. Political parties need to overcome a threshold of 3% of the vote in a constituency to gain any seats at all and electoral coalitions need to overcome a 5% threshold.

Albania is divided into 12 regions although the regions themselves do not serve much of a function. Each region is divided into districts. Each district is divided into communes in rural areas and municipalities in urban areas. The communes and municipalities are responsible for the delivery of direct public services such as waste collection and some other responsibilities such as that for secondary roads. The responsibilities of the districts are not so clearly defined – their main role is to coordinate the actions of the communes and municipalities. The districts have independent directorates for health, education, agriculture and other major policy areas – these directorates are not fully integrated with, and often clash with, the national ministries in these areas.

Elections to councils at both the district and commune/municipality levels are achieved by closed list PR. At the regional and district level the council then elects a chairman who exerts executive power. At the commune/municipality level there is a subsequent  first-past-the-post vote by the public to elect a chair.

How does the system work? (the practice): Albania is a functioning democracy but there are concerns that the ruling party abuses the instruments of state to give themselves unfair advantages. These concerns have led the opposition Socialist Party to boycott Parliament. The constitutional arrangements described above are very new; the previous arrangements gave smaller parties much more power and it remains to be seen how arrangements will bed down.

Power is delicately balanced between the President, Prime Minister and Assemnbly – a state fo affairs which has led to constitutional gridlock in the past.

How did we get here?: The superbly named King Zog of the 1920s and 30s is widely credited with turning Albania into a modern country but also blamed for what happened next. He was paranoid about his succession, at one stage attempting to make the cricketer, polymath and all-round Stephen-Fry’s-uncle CP Fry his heir. His much less popular plan B was to increasingly cede sovereignty to Mussolini’s Italy. This led inevitably to the Italian invasion and occupation of Albania at the outbreak of WW2.

Albania was liberated by communist partisans and their leader, Enver Hoxha, proceeded to rule Albania as a dictator until his death in 1985. The Communist regime continued until 1991 when it collapsed, as was the style at the time. This led to the first open democratic elections, and whilst there have been riots, near civil-wars and constitutional crises aplenty there has been democracy ever since.

Who’s in charge?: Bamir Topi, a moderate member of the centre-right Democratic Party is the president. His election in 2007 was contentious: the system at the time made it much more difficult to be elected president and indeed the constitution was reformed as a direct result of the difficulty of securing his election. However since then He has been seen as a conciliatory figure and is now regarded as been semi independent politically.

The assembly is finely balanced. The centre-right coalition “Alliance for Change” holds 70 seats (68 of which belong to the Democratic party, 1 the right wing Republican Party and 1 the Party for Justice and Integration – a party that represents the views of ethnic Albanians in Greece). Meanwhile the originally named centre-left coalition “Unification for Changes” has 66 seats (65 from the Socialist Party and 1 from the liberal centrist Unity for Human Rights party). The remaining 4 seats are held by the centre-left Socialist Movement for Integration, who refused to join the Unification for changes alliance and instead ran under their own “Socialist Alliance” (they were the only party to win seats from this alliance).

Party splits Albania

It’s not entirely clear whether there are genuine political difference between the Socialist Movement for Integration and the Socialist Party or weather the rifts are more personal: the leader of the former having left the latter in 2004. It may even have been a tactical move to increase the party’s likelihood of holding the balance of power. If that was the intention it worked: with the Alliance for Change unable to command an outright majority on their own they formed a meta-coalition with the Socialist Movement for Integration. Now with the Socialist Party boycotting parliament they may wonder why the bothered.

What does it look like?: Beautiful:


Over one third of the country is densely forested. The vast majority of people live in or around the capital, which looks sort-of Soviet.

What are the issues?: After being deeply isolated during Hoxha’s reign, Albania is now keen to make up for lost time and become part of the international community. They’ve just joined NATO and handling of their application to join the EU is a live political issue. Unemployment is high and the main industry – agriculture – is struggling. It is thought domestically that joining the EU will help with both these things. President Topi has been a passionate advocate of Kosovan independence – many Kosovans being Ethnic Albanians.

A good source of impartial information is: hard to come by. Each political party produces its own newspaper and a lack of independent political coverage was identified by Freedom House as one of the flaws of Albanian democracy – although the situation is improving. The Albanian Daily news is about the only English language source of news on Albania and is thought to be independent.

A good book is: I met someone who was once told by a former UN Secretary General that there is only one book which will teach you anything at all about politics anywhere in the Balkan peninsula and that is King Ottokar’s Sceptre (Tintin). This looks good: The Democratization of Albania: Democracy from Within.

When are the next elections?: Elections for the upper house were held last year (2009), the president is up for election in 2012.


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