Why could a third-way party gain such a victory?

The results of the general elections in Albania came as a surprise to almost everyone: A landslide victory for the ruling Socialist Party, a political disaster for the Democratic Party and historically strong abstentionism.

The ruling Socialist Party increased its relative share of votes, obtaining more than 48% of the electorate approval and securing a conformable parliamentary majority of 74/140. The main opposition party, the Democratic Party, experienced a political disaster. Its share of votes dropped below 29% (its worst electoral result to date), while the third party, the Socialist Movement for Integration, took 14% of the votes. Two new centrist parties, that presented themselves as anti-systemic – Libra and Sfida – didn’t pass the electoral threshold.

Why did the Socialist Party win?

More explicitly, how was it possible that a third-way party, engaged in harsh neoliberal reforms – like those in higher education, privatizations, corrupt Public Private Partnerships (PPP) and an assault on the poor – could gain such a victory? Part of the answer lies in the enormous political power that the Socialist Party has managed to gain over the last four years. By allying itself with big businesses, from media tycoons to owners of private universities, in exchange for lucrative (barely legal) partnerships, the Socialist Party has been able to hegemonize the media and gather financial support for its campaign. This meant, especially in the poorest areas where alienated and desperate jobless or underemployed people live, that the governing party could use its financial advantage to engage in vote buying and other forms of patron-clientelist social relations.

At the same time, Prime Minister Rama engaged in a propaganda campaign that pushed the responsibility for its failures onto its junior coalition partner (the Socialist Movement for Integration), and asked for the electorate to give him and his party an absolute majority; at least this way they could begin to construct an efficient public administration.

Another factor that made the victory of the Socialist Party possible was the postponing of major effects of the socio-economic crisis. By engaging in PPPs and getting loans directly from businesses (the government promises a certain business that if they construct a school, they will be paid on a yearly basis), the government is still providing some basic social services. Or, at least for now, it is maintaining a precarious social balance.

But the Socialist Party could not have won, let alone in a landslide, if the idea that its rivals were no better was not firmly established among the general population. The center-right Democratic Party, which ruled Albania from 2005 to 2013, is viewed as partially responsible for economic and social degradation. As if that wasn’t enough, the Democratic Party was characterized by internal power struggles just before the elections, which resulted in the abstention of some of its core electorate.

Furthermore, it could not have won had the two new parties that challenged it (Libra and Sfida) not been media constructions, asking for the vote of the small professional bourgeoisie of the bigger cities. They made no effort beforehand to create a grassroots movement.

A historic negative record

Nevertheless, the situation is not as rosy for the Socialist Party as its propaganda machine tries to suggest. Even though they maintained the same absolute number of votes as in 2013, its landslide victory was determined by the strong boycotting of the elections. Less than 47% of those eligible to vote attended the elections, a historic negative record. In comparison, participation at the 2013 elections stood at 53.7%. Of course, most abstentionism comes from Albanians living abroad. However, a substantial 30% or more of those living in Albania boycotted the elections. These people are protesting against the political system in toto. And in them, hope may be found for the construction of a social movement, which would act as the real opposition to the Socialist Party government.