The Albanian capital of Tirana was rocked by protests on Saturday (8 January) as one warring faction of the opposition Democratic Party (PD) used force to enter their own headquarters. Police special forces dispersed demonstrators, and several arrests were made.
The conflict came after the founder of the party and ex-prime minister and president Sali Berisha was declared persona non grata by the US State Department for “significant corruption”.
Pressure from the EU and US for him to resign from his parliamentary mandate led to party Chairman Lulzim Basha dismissing him from the PD’s parliamentary group.
Since September, the two political figures have been wrestling for control of the party leadership, both holding national assemblies and votes to oust the other.
Basha’s faction also passed rules barring anyone designated as persona non grata from holding positions within the party. As neither faction recognises the decisions or authority of the other, the situation has escalated in the last two weeks.
Berisha called Saturday’s protest in the EU candidate country an attempt to take back the party headquarters “at any means”.
Several hundred protestors gathered outside the building at noon on Saturday and, using crowbars, sledgehammers, and a battering ram managed to access the building. Others accessed first-floor windows by using ladders but were beaten back with tear gas canisters and even desks wielded by those inside.
Deputies from the other faction remained inside and some assembled on the roof, where they tried to avoid gas canisters and airborne objects.
Damage to the building was extensive, including broken doors, smashed windows, and the destruction of various items inside.
After over an hour of protesting, the police, including special forces, arrived on the scene.
They quickly dispersed the crowd using water cannons and tear gas. Several arrests were made as protestors fled into the surrounding streets. Some scuffles with police were also reported, and a number of journalists were hit with water cannot jets and tear gas, resulting in interruptions to broadcasts.
Addressing the media after calling off protestors, Berisha said, “it is not a violent act when you are entering your own home.”
Both Berisha and Basha gave press conferences following the event, blaming each other for the situation. They also accused each other of being in the service of Prime Minister Edi Rama and seeking to destroy the party. Both men called for the other to stand down.
The Democratic Party was formed after the fall of communism in 1991, and it was the first democratic party to lead the country after almost 50 years. A member of the EPP Group, it is centre-right, but its policies tend to lead towards the centre-left in domestic politics.
Current Chairman Basha was elected in 2013 following the party’s landslide defeat in the general elections that installed now-Prime Minister Rama.
Rama just won his third mandate, which will make him the longest-ruling prime minister after dictator Enver Hoxha.
The PD resigned their parliamentary mandates in February 2019 in protest over leaked wiretaps that suggested ruling party collusion in vote-buying and manipulation. This resulted in a de facto one-party parliament for over two years until the April 2021 general elections.
The DP returned to parliament in September last year, but the current infighting between factions risks Albania being left once again with no meaningful opposition to provide balance in elections, decision making, and accountability, at a time when Albania awaits the green light to start EU accession talks.
Berisha has warned that other protests will be held until Basha steps down from the chairmanship.