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Albania: Parties Use New Constitution In Power Game

Prague, 2 November 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Albania's Socialist-led coalition government is preparing to hold a referendum on a long-awaited new constitution late this month.

Observers hope that the document will strengthen the rule of law, increase the powers of local government, and improve the efficiency of the administration by clearly defining the responsibilities of the various agencies.

It is just over a week since the parliament approved the constitution and announced the referendum, and the document has already become the object of a familiar political power game between the two largest parties.

Opposition Democratic Party leader Sali Berisha said at a press conference last week that his party will oppose the new constitution. Repeating calls for new elections, he made it clear that the Democrats will draft their own constitution, which they intend to adopt once they have a majority in the parliament. Berisha said that "the majority of Albanians (was excluded) from the constitution drafting process" since the Socialists had not agreed to a round table of all political parties to discuss the document when his party was boycotting the legislature. He also criticized the current law whereby a simple majority of votes is sufficient to approve the constitution. The Democrats argue that a majority of all registered voters should be required to approve the draft.

The Socialists reject the opposition charges and stress that it is the Democrats' own fault since they boycotted the parliament for most of this year, thus excluding themselves from the drafting process. They also claim that they repeatedly urged the opposition to participate in that process but the Democrats were unwilling to make their opinion heard.

The conflict between the Socialists and the Democrats is one of form rather than of content. Some constitutional experts from the Democratic Party have told journalists in Tirana that the party does not have any substantial complaints about the draft. Furthermore, the Democrats have failed to come forward with concrete suggestions. So what are the main reasons for the dispute?

On one hand, the Democrats remain unwilling to take part in the regular parliamentary drafting process because such participation would make it more difficult to continue to question the legitimacy of the legislature. On the other hand, the Socialists, who have a two-thirds majority in the parliament, refuse to subject the issue of the constitution to a multiparty round table because acceptance of such a parallel institution to the parliament would imply that the legislature indeed lacks legitimacy. Moreover, agreeing to a round table, similar to the one that mediated the creation of a multiparty interim government in the spring of last year, would be only the first step toward new elections. The government knows that if it tries to base its policy on too broad a consensus and surrenders power to an all-party round table, it would risk becoming paralyzed and unable to tackle the country's urgent problems.

A roundtable of sorts, nonetheless, took place on October 25. But because the content of the constitution was not up for debate, the Democrats declined to attend. Instead, the governing coalition partners and representatives from the smaller center-right Republican Party agreed not to campaign on behalf of the constitution in order to avoid further political polarization of that document. The parties also said they hope that the referendum, which is to be held on November 22, will not develop into a political battle between parties.

They agreed that the parliamentary drafting commission will explain the content of the draft to the electorate through the media. And they suggested that non-governmental organizations, rather than political parties, should be involved in organizing the referendum.

But these parties are unlikely to succeed in keeping party politics out of the referendum. The Democrats have made it clear that they will use the run-up to the referendum to acquire leverage against the government and to eventually force new elections. The electorate is therefore likely to view the plebiscite as a referendum on the current government rather than on the basic law. This is a situation similar to a 1994 referendum, when Berisha, in his capacity at the time as president, proposed a constitution that the electorate turned down. That result was viewed by many as a vote of no confidence in Berisha rather than in the document.

The latest draft constitution has already become politicized, and even if it is approved by a popular referendum, it will likely remain a political football among rival politicians. How much this slows down the building of democratic institutions will depend on the electorate. If the voter turnout is high and a clear majority of voters cast their ballot in favor, the document is likely to remain in force for years to come. In such a case, it would be more difficult for subsequent governments to change the constitution whenever they please than if turnout were low and the majority slim.