Tirana, Albania – President Ilir Meta was set to hold a series of meetings with party leaders on Wednesday night in an effort to resolve a constitutional crisis that, in his words, poses “a serious threat to public security, democratic stability, tranquility and peace in the country”.
On June 8, the president called off nationwide local elections that were due to take place on the last day of the month, because only the ruling Socialist Party had fielded mayoral candidates for them. “This election process is fictitious,” he said.
Opposition parties, led by the Democratic Party, have refused to participate in any elections until Prime Minister Edi Rama resigns and a caretaker government oversees a new general election.
Rama won a second four-year term in June 2017, in a poll which saw the opposition garner 48 percent of the popular vote.
“The conduct of elections in the context of a tense political situation can lead to not only non-participation in the elections of about half of the voters, but creates the risk of a civil conflict,” Meta said in calling off the local elections.
The opposition has boycotted parliament since February, holding weekly protest rallies outside the prime minister’s office and parliament.
“We just became a piece of a picture-perfect parliament with government and opposition, which was effectively a facade, because this opposition was unable to stop parliament from undertaking illegal acts,” Democratic Party leader Lullzim Basha told Al Jazeera shortly after the walkout.
The Rama government has been rocked by a series of scandals that have led to the resignation of two interior ministers for suspected collusion with organised crime.
Basha said government ministers refused to be deposed in bipartisan committees, and those committees “refused to submit evidence of investigations we initiated of collusion between organised crime and senior ministers”.
The latest allegations came on June 5, when the German tabloid Bild published recorded telephone conversations purporting to be between drug kingpin Astrit Avdylaj and Socialist Party officials. In the recording, the voice identified as Avdylaj insists on his appointee being included among the Socialist Party’s candidate list in the 2017 election, in return for drumming up voter turnout for the party. That appointee was elected to parliament.
Rama has been defiant. After Meta called off local elections, he tabled a parliamentary vote to replace the president. That vote is scheduled for Thursday, but Rama seems to have had a change of heart.
“Right now [Rama] won’t try [to remove the president],” an opposition MP who asked not to be named told Al Jazeera. “He has proposed a draft resolution that nowhere mentions removal of the president. It simply calls on the president to respect the constitution.”
Rama directly controls 75 MPs. He needs 94 for a resolution replacing the president to be successful. But there is a further obstacle. “For the president to be removed, the parliament resolution has to be approved by the Constitutional Court, so it won’t happen anyway,” added the opposition MP.
Watch: Protesters demand Edi Rama’s resignation
Albania‘s Constitutional Court has been defunct for 18 months due to a major investigation into judges’ sources of wealth. Rama pledged to clean up the judiciary in his second term, after allegations surfaced of judges receiving bribes. The European Union and US have backed the probe.
“What was unexpected for us was to see that members of the Constitutional Court did not pass the vetting process as they were found not to have justified their wealth. Some were also not professionally well prepared [and] some were found to have connections with criminal organisations,” Socialist Party chief whip Taulant Balla told Al Jazeera.
He said the court should have been up and running by May, but that hasn’t happened.
Rama disputes whether Meta has the constitutional right to postpone the election. Meta says setting the date for elections is the president’s exclusive constitutional domain. Absent the constitutional court, these clashing interpretations cannot be resolved.
Albania’s political and constitutional standoff could affect its economy and its chances of being invited to start the process of joining the European Union – a membership Albanians overwhelmingly support.
“Having elections on June 30, 2019, without competition and without the opposition’s participation – in violation of a key Copenhagen criteria for free and fair elections – would freeze the country’s EU integration progress [and] undermine any prospect of opening accession negotiations,” Meta said.
But European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker expressed a very different view on June 11, when he met Rama in Brussels.
“I’m in favour that these elections should take place. If not, this would harm the European perspective of Albania,” Juncker said.
Rama wants membership talks to proceed. “I think that it’s time for Europe to do what we expect after having delivered – to recognise our merit and to switch a green light for accession talks,” said the prime minister.
The opposition MP has a different view: “To us, it is reminiscent of the elections the Communist regime tried to organise in 1990, just before it fell, when its candidates were the Labour Party of Albania and its satellites, such as the Communist Youth, Communist Women’s Union [and the Communist-controlled] labour unions.”
The Socialist Party was the successor to the Communist regime, absorbing most of the country’s experienced politicians and intelligentsia.
The economy could also suffer from political uncertainty and the threat of what Meta calls “uncontrollable consequences”.
Albanian per capita GDP is already among Europe’s lowest, at just over $4,500.
Adding to these woes is the perception that the ruling party takes care of its own supporters. Even though Rama has implemented an impressive array of public investments in roads, hospitals and city regeneration, many Albanians say this hasn’t stimulated a broader recovery.
“I have four brothers. They have no opportunity to be employed here and they live in Greece,” veterinarian Xhelil Koleci tells Al Jazeera.
The brothers planned to return to Albania six years ago, when Rama was elected, and used their Greek savings to build new homes, but those now lie empty. “They have no hope. Even my mind is working to go out,” says Koleci. “I have two children studying in Germany. I could not tell them, ‘come back and build your life here’.”
Given that the opposition rules out resuming its parliamentary seats, it is difficult to imagine a compromise that would restore the country’s faith in the parliamentary and electoral processes.
The hiatus in judicial processes and Rama’s refusal to acknowedge the president’s authority also remove two important checks and balances.
“My personal view is that without a back channel from the EU or a powerful member state, [compromise] will be difficult,” says the opposition MP.