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In Albania, It's the Institutions

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Elections bring new leaders but fixing system a heady task

The elections in Albania last week deserve applause. A large segment of the country rejected the authoritarian prime minister, Sali Berisha, who has dominated Albania's political life since the fall of communism 22 years ago. With a few exceptions, the elections were peaceful -- by no means a given even after the country's two decades of transition.

But observers of Albania -- including the European Union, which is considering the country's candidacy -- should not prematurely read this success as a sign of structural change. The dynamics behind the elections, and a close look at the results, reveal troubling flaws that will impact Albania for years to come. The applause should be brief.

First, the victory of the Socialist Party opposition was not a vote for the party's program or leaders. It was a vote against Berisha. It was a referendum on his rule, both over the past eight years and going back to 1992. Albanians rejected his old-school paternalism and the corruption that he had promised to stem -- but never did.

Second, even with this rejection, voters did not turn directly to the other side. The Socialists won only one more seat in parliament than four years ago. The big winner was a smaller party called the Socialist Movement for Integration, which had split from the Socialists in 2004, switched to the Democrat's coalition in 2009 and slid back to the Socialists for these elections. Run by the skillful operator Ilir Meta, the party stunningly jumped from 4 to 16 parliamentary seats.

This leap was unthinkable a few months before. Meta's party was serving in the ruling coalition with Berisha, holding the ministries of economy, foreign affairs and health, so it shared blame for the country's woes. Meta himself was widely accused of corruption, including in a video broadcast on television two years ago while he was deputy prime minister and foreign minister that appears to show him working a dirty deal. The authenticity of the video was never verified and the prosecution collapsed after intense political pressure but the allegations stuck. Government forces who shot and killed four protesters at an anti-corruption demonstration after the video appeared were acquitted.

As this year's election campaign began, Meta made a dramatic move by leaving Berisha for the Socialist coalition. Did Albanians think he had left the corrupt games behind? Were they inspired by a revamped party platform? On the contrary, Albanians were apparently swayed by payouts of cash and jobs, and no one has mastered that deal better than Meta's machine. Both Democrats and Socialist say - with more praise than contempt - that his party is organized, efficient and gets to the point; in this case, allegedly 200 euros per vote. How else to explain a four-fold increase after co-ruling for four years and, at the last minute, switching sides?

The Socialist Party leader, Edi Rama, will become prime minister but Meta could have him on a string. As he did with Berisha, Meta will demand a high percentage of administration jobs for his supporters and impunity for shady business deals. With the cost of an election campaign running into the millions, Rama was also forced to seek help from businessmen of various shades; they too will expect a hefty return on their investment.

In this way, Albanians chose a more democratic form of corruption, with a patronage system that rewards supporters, over Berisha's narrow corruption for a circle of family and friends.

The stamp of approval that this election has gotten from international observers should therefore be viewed with a skeptical eye. Vote buying is always the most difficult deceit for observers to detect. The fact that no brazen manipulations were spotted in the counting is due to the opposition's landslide win rather than an improved process. Had it been close, Berisha would have used his control of the state to play dirty tricks.

Albania appears more stable and EU worthy because of the smooth elections and a peaceful transfer of power. Berisha even showed an unexpected grace and stepped down as Democratic Party head, though he will be a member of the new parliament. But the stability is illusory. It is based on Albanian formulations rather than institutions. The system didn't work better, it just didn't get tested.

Edi Rama, an artist and former mayor of Tirana, is no Sali Berisha -- he will avoid the divisive, clan-based approach of his predecessor. But he owes a pound of flesh to Meta and those who financed the campaign. His ability to foster a functioning justice system, independent media and apolitical police will be constrained.

In Albania, it's not a lack of democratic spirit or knowledge that prevents the construction of independent institutions. It is the prevailing economic powers' lack of interest in having them be truly independent. And that, despite Berisha's departure, has not radically changed.

Fred Abrahams is writing a book about the fall of communism in Albania. The views expressed here are his own.