Smart Horses: Albanian Election Diary, Part 1

I spent the week leading up to the elections travelling the length of the country, trying (and often failing) to make sense of Albanian democracy. What were people fighting for in these elections? Was there some great ideological battle taking place? It was a question that would echo in my mind for the duration of my trip because it seemed to me there ought to be one.

Back home in England, people have been saying for a thousand years that you can lead a horse to water but you cannot make it drink. Walking across Tirana in the run-up to this year’s municipal elections I noticed someone had tied a handful of horses up on the riverbank. It was a hot day but none of them were drinking. According to a 2012 report, the chemical contents of all three rivers running through Albania’s capital are “so extremely bad” that “they all represent an everyday risk for the [sic] human health.” Smart horses.

Democracy has a short history in Albania. The first multiparty elections were held in 1991 and enjoyed a 98.9 percent participation rate. That number has been steadily falling ever since. When the polling stations closed on June 21 this year, just 47.8 percent of eligible Albanian voters turned out to elect new mayors and municipal councillors. I spent the week leading up to the elections travelling the length of the country, trying (and often failing) to make sense of Albanian democracy. So, what does the low turnout mean? Smart horses.

I arrived in Tirana on June 15 clutching a copy of Albanian Political Parties and Elections Since 1991 by Arjan Dyrmishi. It is not the most riveting of reads but it is refreshingly non-partisan. The paper was published in 2009, so I was interested to know what Dyrmishi made of the situation six years on: “I don’t have any cause for optimism,” he told me. The problem, he explained, is that the electorate are “locked into” a system defined by patronage, clientelism and blackmail in which “co-option, intimidation and vote buying are used wherever possible.”

There were 63 parties on the ballot paper this time around; all the same, Albanian politics has essentially been a two-horse race since its inception. Heading up the government since parliamentary elections in 2013 is the Socialist Party. The Socialists are direct descendants of the Labour Party, whose Stalinist doctrine governed every facet of Albanian life until 1991. The first legal opposition party to emerge as the Communist regime decayed was the Democratic Party. In a snub to nominal determinism, the Democrats flirted with autocracy in the mid-90s after being elected for the first time in 1992. Today they are the Socialist’s main rivals.

The other 61 parties are mostly junior coalition partners for hire to the main contenders, hoping to catch a nibble on the big boys’ table scraps. As with the Democrats and Socialists, the smaller parties are not overly fussy when it comes to points of ideological difference. The Socialist Movement for Integration (LSI) was formed in 2004 by disgruntled former Socialist Party prime minister Ilir Meta. Despite previously breaking away to back a Democrat-led government, the LSI is once again in coalition with the Socialists.

“Elections in Albania are seen as a vehicle for democracy, that’s not the case,” Dyrmishi said, “They are a way for parties to increase their power at any cost.” In the week that followed our conversation I had many more with politicians of various stripes as well as their flunkies and hangers-on. Each spoke of the virtues of progress and democracy alongside the specter of resurging dictatorship. The charges they would lay at the feet of their opponents would often be for crimes riddling their own parties’ pasts. If one thing was certain, it was that the cardinal error in observing Albanian politics was to conflate the lofty words embedded in parties’ names and slogans (along with their representatives’ speech) with a core belief in anything other than money and power. “Like Mexican drug lords; they go to war to expand their territory, not to fight drugs,” as Dyrmishi put it.

For reasons cultural, linguistic and historic, Albania is a nation divided north and south. This divide extends to politics. The Democratic Party can normally rely on electoral support from the northern municipalities, thanks in part to party patriarch Sali Berisha’s roots in Tropoja, a small town south of the border with Kosovo. The south tends to dress to the left.

On the road to Kukës, Albania. Photo by Jack Davies.
On the road to Kukës, Albania. Photo by Jack Davies.

I left Tirana at the crack of dawn on June 17 to take the five hour bus ride to Gjirokaster, a UNESCO protected town 30 kilometres from the Greek border.

On first arrival in Gjirokaster you might assume it was famous for its flag production and you had turned up in time for the annual flag festival. Every available lamppost, shop front, fence, rear windscreen, balcony and dustbin was daubed in brightly coloured, mass produced stretches of fabric competing for your attention. On closer inspection though, these are not celebrations of historic craftsmanship but proclamations of party allegiance. Fluttering in the wind, the rich blue of the Democratic Party jostles with the Socialist Movement for Integration’s pinkish hue. The Barney the Dinosaur-esque purple cloth of the Socialist Party is equally aggressive in its thirst for your attention.

Parties with less well stocked war chests paste fliers to any surface not already totally obscured with flags. One in particular caught my eye. At first glance it seemed to be a missing cat poster. All-caps text and a grainy photograph photocopied together into a mishmash of monochrome and lazy typography. All that felt out of place was the clipart hammer and sickle. It was a campaign poster for the Communist Party of Albania (PKSH). The grainy photo was of an old boy in a flat cap, presumably a candidate.

There is little information online about PKSH’s activities today and certainly no party website. What is clear from the few interviews scattered throughout cyberspace is that they are not just communists but full-blown disciples of Enver Hoxha. Hoxha presided as dictator over all but six of Albanian communism’s 45 brutal years. Rather tidily, Gjirokaster is his birthplace.

With no website to glean contact information from I set about finding the local party HQ the old fashioned way. The old fashioned way consisted of approaching people in bars and trotting out my painfully poor Albanian for various iterations of the following conversation:

“Excuse me. Good day, where is the office of the Communist Party of Albania?”


“Where is the Communist Party?”

“The Socialists? That way.”

“No, the Communists, PKSH.”

Puzzled faces.

“There is no Communist Party.”

“There is, they have posters, see.”

“Oh, sorry, no idea.”

I began to wonder if maybe the posters were just for tourists, “Come, visit the birthplace of Albanian communism and, who knows, maybe meet a real life communist!” So I checked if they actually had a candidate running in Gjirokaster. They did, about a dozen of them standing for the local council. Almost all were of retiring age with a handful of youthful stragglers somewhere over the thirty mark. But, with the address of the party office apparently unknown to Gjirokaster’s non-commies, I was unable to track down a single redskin to interview. So instead went in search of the next best thing, socialists.

The Socialist Party has a website. It even has helpful subsections for each municipality with a contact phone number for each one. According to the polite but firm automaton at the other end of line though, the number listed for Gjirokaster had been disconnected. Maybe it’s just busy, I’ll try again. Nope, disconnected. That’s absurd, what right-minded politician publishes an out-of-date phone number on the eve of an election? I must have dialled incorrectly. Oh. No. Disconnected.  There must be some kind of mistake. I’ll give the party HQ in Tirana a call and ask for the actual number. And there was that firm and robotic woman again, disconnected. This is the party running the country and they are apparently unable to coordinate a simple telephone line.

No cause for despair though, this is the 21st Century, I’ll hit them up on Facebook. Sure enough, there was a “partia Socialiste Gjirokaster” account and they had just posted a fresh set of photos. I sent them a message explaining that I am a journalist and would dearly love to speak to someone from their party. A little tick appeared under my message, they had seen it. But no response. Of course, how arrogant of me to write in English straight off the bat. The same message, this time in Albanian. Tick, seen. No response.

Once again, Gjirokaster’s political class seemed determined that I should do things the old fashioned way. The trouble was, with so many flags, billboards and posters everywhere, the only way of discerning a barber’s shop from a party headquarters was by sticking your head through the door.

A fortress stretches along the crest of a hill whose slope houses Gjirokaster’s old town. After half an hour of apologising to bemused business owners I finally retreated up the hill to the castle.  Two rows of mismatched 20th Century artillery pieces line the castle’s arched stone bowels. Stood in the cool, dark solitude between the decrepit weaponry I heard the echoed bleating of a lone and lost goat. I knew how he felt.

Since entering Albania across its northern border I had covered all but 30 kilometres of the country’s length. With four days until people headed to the polls I had interviewed precisely zero candidates.

I walked out into the skin-toasting sunlight baring down on the battlements. Looking down at the town I tried to fathom the “big story”. The town was beautiful, the old town, at least, with its mismatched shingle roofs and cobbled streets. But at the base of the hill it gave way to the concrete blocks and dusty potholed roads of decaying Stalinist sprawl. What were people fighting for in these elections? Was there, despite what Dyrmishi had told me in Tirana, some great ideological battle taking place? It was a question that would echo in my mind for the duration of my trip because it seemed to me there ought to be one.

When Communism swept half the globe last century, it did so on the back of the idea that no man should be shackled below another. Somewhere along the way the whole thing deviated massively from concept with horrifying results. Not the least of which was that rather than emancipating the workers of the world, Communism generally just shackled them under new masters. Albania was no exception. Those new masters were housed in an exclusive downtown district of Tirana known as Blloku. There, away from the prying eyes of the proletariat, the Politburo would feast on imported luxuries in their villas while the nation toiled in subjugation and misery.

Thankfully, in 1991 Albanian Communism crumbled. Allegedly, its markets and governance were liberalised and Blloku was returned to the masses, at a price. A beer in one of the district’s bars will set you back nearly three times what it would almost anywhere else in the city. And yet the terraces of these bars are packed from dawn to way past dusk. Police will no longer ask to check your papers on the way in, but Blloku is once again the preserve of an elite.

Back on the castletop in Gjirokaster my phone chirped. It was a Facebook message from a colleague answering my pleas for somebody to interview in Gjirokaster. He introduced me to Roland Bejko, campaign manager to the Democratic Party candidate for mayor in the Gjirokaster municipality. He could not meet me that day, but if I waited for him outside party headquarters at eight the next morning, we could talk then.


Cover photo credit: Jack Davies

Liked it? Take a second to support Balkanist on Patreon!
Jack Davies

Jack Davies is a freelance journalist focusing on the Western Balkans. You can find him on Twitter @jackoozell