Former Albanian president and prime minister Sali Berisha was elected as head of the opposition Democratic Party by an overwhelming majority on May 22. Berisha convincingly defeated his rival for the party leadership, Ibsen Elezi, taking well over 90% of the votes.
The result marks Berisha’s political comeback nine years after he stepped down as head of the party following its defeat to Prime Minister Edi Rama’s Socialists back in 2013.
Relations between Albania’s two largest parties —the Socialists and the Democrats — were not good under former Democratic leader Lulzim Basha but they are set to worsen following Berisha’s return. In April, Rama told MPs that he would “cut all relations” with the Democrats if the party reinstated Berisha as its leader, and called Berisha “a dead man”.
Since 2013, Basha led the Democrats to two further general election defeats. The party’s failure to make gains in the April 2021 general election prompted Berisha to launch a drive to oust Basha, appealing directly to party members.
Berisha has been an important figure in Albanian politics since the first years after the fall of communism. In 1990 he backed student demonstrations calling for a multi-party system. Two years later, he became the first president of Albania who was not a member of the Communist party, serving from 1992 to 1997.
In 2005, after mass protests brought down Socialist prime minister Fatos Nato, Berisha returned to power as prime minister, serving from 1997 to 2013.
Berisha is a controversial politician who was named persona non grata by the US State Department in May 2021 due to his involvement in “significant corruption”, a statement from Secretary of State Antony Blinken said.
Along with Berisha, his wife Liri Berisha and children Shkelzen Berisha and Argita Berisha Malltezi were also banned from travelling to the US.
After Berisha was blacklisted, Basha expelled him from the party’s parliamentary group, after which Berisha launched his campaign to regain control of the party.
This culminated in a storming of the Democratic Party headquarters by Berisha’s supporters in January. Several hundred people forced their way through the barriers outside the building, smashed windows and forced their way inside.
After a series of election defeats, Basha eventually stood down after the party’s poor performance in local by-elections in March. Rama’s Socialists won five of the six elections, with the sixth won by a candidate put up by Berisha.
The party was led until the May 22 leadership election by interim leader Enkelejd Alibeaj — who Berisha publicly pushed off the parliament podium in a televised incident on April 21.
Berisha’s appointment comes at a time when MPs are preparing to elect the country’s next president, before incumbent President Ilir Meta’s term expires.
The ruling Socialists have a majority in the parliament and thus have the final say in who becomes Albania’s next president. However, with Berisha at the helm of the Democrats, the process will become more contentious.