LOS ANGELES — Earlier this month, Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama made international headlines after he appointed women to 12 of his 16 cabinet posts — an increase of three from the previous nine that held ministerial posts.
“This cabinet must set a new world record, right? Who has done better?” tweeted Besiana Kedare, Albania’s permanent representative to the United Nations.
Kedare was correct — Albania now has the highest rates (75%) of women in leading government positions globally. This majority female cabinet beats Spain, which previously held this title with 62.6% majority female cabinet. However, this momentous growth of female political representation is shrouded by Rama’s dubious leadership practices, and brings the authenticity of these appointments into question.
As his administration faces accusations of tightening its grip on power and restricting the civil liberties of the people it governs, Rama has attempted to change the public narrative. While some leaders might scale up their attacks on their opponents or stop their abusive practices altogether, Prime Minister Rama decided to take a different path: a diversion in the form of female political appointments.
When his victory was announced in April 2021, Rama had become the only person in Albania’s democratic history to be elected to prime minister three consecutive times. His Socialist party platform, known as the “Renaissance,” prioritized European integration, the democratization of state institutions, and economic revitalization. And for much of his tenure, his record reflects an effort to achieve this.
For example, he reformed the notoriously corrupt judicial system with a vetting law that prohibits corrupt judges from holding office. He also pulled the energy sector away from the brink of bankruptcy, lowered unemployment, and even worked to reconcile relations with Serbia through a visit to the country for the first time in 70 years.
Policy was not the only characteristic that set Rama apart, though — his eccentric appearance and personality has earned him the title of “pop-star politician.” It’s easy to see why; before entering politics, Rama was a painter and later a fine arts professor at the Academy of Arts in the capital city of Tirana. He also played for the Albanian national basketball team, a sport that his six-foot seven figure lent itself well to. After becoming mayor of Tirana in 2000, Rama became well-known for his colorful style and out-of-the-box appearance as a politician. He carried this flamboyance with him to the office of Prime Minister, where he dons sweatpants and sneakers when visiting other world leaders.
It’s this reputation that made him popular amongst the younger generations, who, when electing him, desperately wanted a transition into modernity.
However, after nearly eight years in power, Rama’s pop-star politician image has faded. His opponents argue that he is tightening his grip on freedoms and chipping away at the civil liberties of Albanian citizens. While he denounces the behavior of former U.S. President Donald Trump, he demonstrates similar conduct by routinely berating journalists. Additionally, he has been accused of restricting the press through harsh “anti-defamation” laws that empower authorities to shut down online media without judicial oversight.
His election victory has also been challenged; some claim that he won with the help of voter intimidation and bribes. Ahead of the 2017 Parliamentary elections, leaked audiotapes appeared to record Rama talking about planting rioters and colluding with local police and organized crime. He is heard asking a local police official if the “objective has been met,” while another recording depicts a cabinet member asking the same police official to send a “van of problematic guys.” Later, he uses intimidation and cash bribes to encourage constituents to vote for the Socialist Party.
In short, Rama has fallen victim to the historic reputation of corruption in Albania that he vowed to overturn. This pattern of behavior brings into question the authenticity of his cabinet appointments in early September.
But, to be clear, this milestone is indisputable. Rama claims that Albania is now ranked first in the United Nations’ general classification for the number of women in the government, and the move puts female politicians in positions of leadership that are firsts not only in Albanian history, but regional and global history as well.
However, the backdrop of corruption and authoritarianism leaves one wondering if this decision was politically motivated. After all, during his speech, Rama spent most of his time defending his election victory and decrying libel against opponents who say otherwise. In addition, the presentation of the new cabinet was live streamed with no journalists present. Independent analyst Aleksander Cipa noted how some of Rama’s appointments lacked professional experience in their new role, or any political experience at all. While it is true that Rama has a record of surrounding himself with female leadership, Cipa argues that this too could be for the image, not the insight.
“He has felt better (working with women) due to his individual authority and he is more controlling in partnership with governing ladies,” Cipa told EuroNews.
All of this makes his cabinet presentation come off not only as blatantly artificial and inauthentic but intentionally deceptive. Democratic Party MP Geta Bardeli made this exact accusation, calling Rama’s new ministers “cosmetics to cover up a cruel robbery of power.” Nominating women to positions of political power means nothing when they are used for political brownie points instead of legitimate policy guidance. The image of Rama focusing his speech on his election claims after briefly referencing his female colleagues behind him exemplifies this idea perfectly.
Rama’s appointments may have earned him temporary respect on the international stage, but faux attempts to distract the public won’t be successful without actually ending harmful authoritarian policies and corruptive tendencies. If Rama really wants to salvage his political reputation, he will need a lot more than flashy outfits and overdue female representation in his government—he will need dedication.
For one, Rama needs to put an end to his authoritarian policies. By reforming or even dissolving his new state agency for Media and Information (MIA), which journalists argue is a “propaganda ministry,” Rama can help his country’s ranking in the Reporters Without Borders report on press freedom (which put Albania in 83rd place). He will also need to put an end to his “anti-defamation” laws and restore election integrity after sweeping investigations into his campaign.
In addition to ending harmful policy, Rama will also need to implement restorative legislation to help the country move forward. Albania has several critical issues that deserve attention by his administration. After a devastating earthquake in 2019 — coupled with the impacts of COVID-19 — the country requires a comprehensive reconstruction process, both physically and economically. It also needs to develop its energy production to support global clean energy goals, fight corruption and drug trafficking within its borders, and negotiate full European Union membership. These are all achievable for Rama, but the success of his solutions are dependent on the overall success of his cabinet. His newly appointed Minister of Agriculture, Frida Krifca, has a goal of achieving $1 billion in exports, while his Minister of Finance, Delinda Ibrahimaj, aims for a 4% annual growth in their economy.
For now, it is too early to see tangible results from this administration. However, with the right steps taken in good faith, Prime Minister Edi Rama has the potential to put Albania on the global stage — not just for the flashiest reasons — but for the right reasons.