In early December 2018 everybody was stunned by the massivity and political strength of the student multitude. In a few weeks, what started as a small protest to counter a minor governmental decision was transformed in a student-wide movement which put into question the whole neoliberal political investment in higher education. Besides, large sectors of the population expressed their solidarity with the students and asked from them the deepening of their requests, a new socio-political system, which would sever the links between the economic oligarchy and the political establishment.
The student protests and occupations, but most importantly people’s solidarity with them, rose on the surface what was always implicitly supposed: the growing sense of political alienation of the citizenry and the feeling of non-representativeness of the political system at large. It didn’t take long for the main political parties to try to exploit and divert this political uneasiness. Suddenly, everybody was claiming to be anti-systemic. As Jacques Ranciere would have put it, politics was no longer a quarrel between the one who says white, and the other who says black, but between two parts that say white, but understand opposing things. From early January, even the Prime Minister Rama, against whose policies and government tens of thousands of students had risen in protests, claimed to be the authentic political representative of the students’ concerns, even its covert political leader – a hyper-capitalist surrogate of what Mao Zedong relationship with the Red Guards has been, trying in vain to mobilize them against a part of the corrupted professors.
The main opposition parties (Democratic Party – PD, and Socialist Movement for Integration – LSI), on the other hand, have been trying for months now to show themselves as the political representatives of wide social discontent, and imitate the tactics, symbols and a part of the political discourse of the student movement. After failing to divert the student protests by infiltrating their youth party sectors within the movement, and contributing to enflaming contradictions within the movement, the opposition parties started an independent political movement in February, which claims the credentials of anti-systemic. In order to bridge the deep chasm that divides them – like all other political parties in Albania – from the society at large, PD and LSI decided to take a radical step, unheard of in the history of Albania’s political scheme: they withdrew permanently from the parliament. Boycotting periodically parliamentary sessions has been a widespread tactic of opposition parties in Albania, but never before have political parties and their members of parliament withdrawn officially and permanently from the parliament, an attempt formally similar to the Aventine Secession of the Italian opposition parties during early Fascism. What makes its gesture more radical is the threat that they will boycott and try to impede the June municipal elections unless Edi Rama resigns, a transitory government replaces his rule, and new general elections are held simultaneously with the municipal elections.
What PD and LSI leaders hope is that by withdrawing momentously from political privileges, such as the MP salary, they will be accepted by the popular classes as their genuine political representatives. In addition, they have tried to imitate some of the slogans, the gestures, and ideas of the student movement. They promise an uncompromising war against the oligarchs, and organized crime, tuition-free universities, the implementation of other important social rights, while maintaining, in a characteristic right-populist agenda, neoliberal economic policies like a 9% flat tax, and other pro-business mantra.
Secretly, they hope that by withdrawing from the system, history will repeat itself. A probable social upheaval will put them in power. In the general elections of 1996, the then oppositional Socialist Party withdrew its commissioners and candidates several hours after the beginning of the elections due to overt violence and intimidation from state authorities. In 1997, the collapse of the massive Ponzi schemes led to an armed popular revolt, which destroyed the political power of the Democratic Party and put in power the Socialists; who, of course, betrayed the poor and deepened the neoliberal structural adjustment process.
But history doesn’t repeat itself. If it does, it goes from tragedy to farce. In 1997, the majority of the members of parliament rode bikes to plenary sessions. Economic differentiation was small, the Albanian bourgeoisie still very weak, and capital dispersed in a myriad of small entrepreneurs. Nowadays, due to the deep neoliberal restructuration – large privatizations, private-public-partnerships, commodification of spaces and public services, in concomitance with a very powerful mafia underground – there’s a strong, albeit, clientelist and comprador bourgeoisie in Albania. Its links with all political parties run deep. They manage to throw money to all sides, finance electoral campaigns, and rent their powerful media outlets. In exchange they expect political parties to deliver once in power. What seems to have happened since the general elections of 2017, when Edi Rama’s Socialist Party won again, is that the comprador-clientelist-criminal sections of the big bourgeoisie started to support disproportionally Rama, due to the latter’s image of political strength. What the opposition parties are trying to achieve by pressuring Rama to resign and gain early general elections is a reshuffling of the oligarchs’ support. So, in equal terms of being financed by the latter, they hope to win power.
On the other hand, like all main politicians in Albania, the opposition’s main figures are just plainly and shamelessly rich. Most of them have been ministers, mayors or powerful political patrons of localities, are widely viewed as corrupted and live in luxurious neighbourhoods, close to their “Socialist” colleagues. Therefore their discursive and symbolic aggressiveness can hardly be transformed into social upheaval.
Let’s take the example of political violence during the opposition’s protests. Despite being anathematized by the government and EU and US official representatives as unacceptable, the level of violence during the protests has been very low, in comparison with important popular protests in Western countries. What happens is that once in a week or two one hundred protesters engage in pushes with tens of policemen in front of the Parliament. There might be some stones thrown mainly towards the buildings (not to the police), and a police response of throwing tear gas. Everything happens before a large crowd which remains relatively indifferent and doesn’t take part in the skirmishes. This shows that this small dose of political violence is tightly controlled by the organizers, who don’t want to really upset Western diplomats, and, most importantly, have no interest in the social spilling of violence – like what used to happen twenty-some years ago when people pillaged banks, and boutiques.
Until now the EU and US representatives have condemned the opposition strategy, and shown support to the government. Their withdrawal from the parliament and the threat to boycott municipal elections is considered a dangerous destabilizing process, which would somehow risk delegitimizing the hegemonic political narrative of a relatively stable pluralistic political system. Having a supposedly centre-left and a centre-right party, which are alternated periodically in power in order to push forward the same structural policies, has been a long-lasting investment of the EU and US representatives. PD and LSI newly-discovered “radicalism” has disconcerted them. What they fear most is that the opposition strategy will unleash uncontrollable social forces, which, like in all revolutions, push away the moderate radical impostors and start a process of political upheavals which could destabilize not only Albania, but the whole region. Knowingly, the opposition parties are asking from the Western governments to put pressure on Rama in order to reach a power-sharing agreement.
The scenarios for the next months are two. Let’s start by the most probable one. With due international pressures, the parts will reach an agreement of power sharing, and implement some formal constitutional reforms that give the impression of democratization. The two parts risk everything from the ongoing antagonism. If PD and LSI boycott municipal elections and the President of Republic (ex-chairman of LSI) resigns in protest, Edi Rama’s Socialist Party will control every branch and sector of the political system, without any kind of opposition. His image will be that of a quasi-despot, with no proper democratic legitimacy – something even worse than his buddy Erdogan, who at least wins in formally competitive elections. On the other hand, if PD and LSI boycott the municipal elections, they seriously risk being disintegrated quickly. Their political backbone – thousands of people who are employed in the municipalities they control, and are the most radical in protest, being employed clientelistically by the party – will risk losing their jobs, and suddenly change allegiance. Without this broad stratum of opportunist political activists, every political party in Albania is practically dead.
The second alternative is that, with Western support, Rama will go on alone into the municipal elections, while trying to improvise small opposition parties in order to have a small margin of legitimacy. The political disintegration of PD and LSI will be fast, leaving the Socialist Party and Rama with no buffer zone between themselves and popular classes. New and more radical political forces can be formed within the most advanced sectors of society – students, young professionals, qualified workers etc. – which could be the organic intellectuals for the construction of a new historical bloc, whose potentials could be really explosive.
Economic discontent, social uneasiness and systemic political alienation are pervading through society. Who is going to harness it – in order to gradually extinct or enflame it – will decide the history of Albania for the next decades.