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Albania: Reformers Call For Change In Democratic Party

A battle within Albania's governing Socialist Party recently led to a change in the post of prime minister. But the main opposition Democratic Party is also split, as a faction pressing for internal reform grows more vocal.

Munich, 24 November 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Changes are under way in Albania's leading conservative party. These could prove a first step toward renewing the party and overcoming the polarization between the Democrats and Socialists that has characterized political life for most of the past decade.

A number of prominent politicians from the opposition Democratic Party announced this month (November 9) that they will form a group called the Democratic Alternative within the party. They seek to challenge the dominant position of party leader and former President Sali Berisha. They also want to promote democracy within the party and to improve its standing in the eyes of voters.

The group includes eight of the party's 27 parliamentary deputies. The Tirana daily "Koha Jone" recently quoted unnamed members of the group as saying they will push for an extraordinary party congress soon.

The decision to form the new group comes just over a month after Secretary-General Genc Pollo challenged Berisha for the party leadership at a national congress. Pollo withdrew his candidacy shortly before the vote, however, saying he had received threats against himself and his family. The proposals put forward earlier this month by the eight are similar to the ones that Pollo advanced before the congress.

Unnamed party officials supporting the reformers told "Koha Jone" that they intend to change the platform and leadership of the party by winning grassroots support from among the rank and file. A quarter of all Democratic Party members or a quarter of the members of the party's National Council must request a party congress, and the reformers are already hard at work collecting signatures from local party members. The reformers have also held frequent meetings with former party members who quit the party earlier as Berisha grew more authoritarian.

Since 1992, when the Democrats won parliamentary and presidential elections and put an end to the rule of the former Communists, the Democratic Party has lost many of its co-founders and prominent leaders. Some of them founded a smaller, liberal-oriented, center-right party, the Democratic Alliance, which is now in the Socialist-dominated coalition government. Others, like the young and energetic former party leader Eduard Selami, have withdrawn from politics for the time being.

Selami has warned that the Democrats will isolate themselves if the party fails to reform from within. One of the eight reformers -- legislator and former foreign relations secretary Eduard Demi -- takes a similar view. He told the "Albanian Daily News" that the party is losing popular support and must change if it is to regain credibility. The party is suffering from, in Demi's words, a "veil of ridicule that covers [it] in the eyes of the international community." He was referring to international criticism of the party for its repeated parliamentary boycotts and obstructionism.

The conflict between the reformers and Berisha supporters became public when the reformers refused to boycott a parliamentary session early this month. At the session, the cabinet of newly appointed Prime Minister Ilir Meta faced a vote of confidence. The attendance by the reformers was a bold move. If they do not win sufficient support within the party, they face the same fate as past Berisha challengers.

A Berisha spokesman said the party leadership will prevent those deputies who attended the recent parliamentary session from running as Democrats in the next elections (in 2001). He added that the eight "have excluded themselves by disobeying the leadership's orders [and by] caring only for their own interests." Demi, however, countered that the party may expel only members who break with the party's political principles, which the eight did not do. He added that the harsh reaction from the party leadership "is emotional, and it comes out of desperation."

Another supporter of the reformers, Tirana's Mayor Albert Brojka, recently told an Austrian paper ("Die Presse") that Berisha and Socialist Party leader Fatos Nano are responsible for the polarization of Albanian political life. Brojka said that both of Albania's major political leaders have a "communist mentality." The time has come, he said, for younger people to come to the fore.

(Fabian Schmidt is a research analyst for the former Yugoslavia and Albania at the Suedost Institut in Munich.)