Edi Rama turned central Tirana into a modern European capital as its mayor from 2000 to 2011. Now as Albania's prime minister, he's vastly expanding Tirana's land area and shrinking the number of Albania's local governments from 373 to 61. Reuters/Landov/Brian Snyder

Inside a dramatic consolidation of local government.

TIRANA, Albania—Local elections across Albania this Sunday will be a remarkable event, not because of all the people running for mayor but because of how few of those jobs there are to fill.

Albania is shrinking its number of local governments from 373 to 61. That means there are fewer mayors to elect—but each will have more territory to govern. The June 21 elections are the first under the new structure, which will be put into place over the next several months.

The overhaul is a bold test of the saying that “less is more.” By consolidating the number of local governments—which currently serve an average of 7,500 people each—Albanian leaders hope to create economies of scale. They expect the larger new municipalities to have greater capacity to deliver better services more efficiently.

Here in the capital of Tirana, the new system means the city’s land area will grow 25 times larger, and its population will more than double from about 420,000 to roughly 1 million. It also means candidates running for mayor are campaigning not only in the vibrant city center but also in the impoverished neighborhoods on the periphery as well as rural areas outside the city.

The region-wide campaigning is a good sign. Since the fall of communism in 1991, Tirana and other Albanian cities have had a hard time keeping up with rapid urbanization. Thousands of poor migrants from mountainous areas of Albania settled in squatter communities on the urban outskirts, where water connections and other services are spotty. The hope is that having urban leaders who are responsible for not just the city but also the surrounding areas will lead to more holistic urban planning.

“The capacity of local governments to respond to the movement of citizens was not sufficient,” says Albana Dhimitri, who was deputy mayor of Tirana from 2005 to 2011 and now heads the Institute for Public and Private Policies. “Public services did not respond in a proper way.”

Albania is aiming for accession to the European Union, and reforming its local governance structure is an important step toward that goal. Dhimitri says the new system will challenge local leaders to think and plan in more ambitious ways. “In pursuing urban development, mayors will need to consider not only construction but also tourism, agriculture, housing and industries. They will create integrated models to ensure better governance.”

Too many towns

The end of communism brought Albania’s first democratically elected local governments. It also brought what is now widely acknowledged as too many of them. Hundreds of jurisdictions were set up for a country of roughly 3 million. More than three-quarters of these units serve fewer than 5,000 people.

At the same time, Albania has been delegating authority from the central government to the local level. Local governments have responsibility over functions such as road construction and maintenance, waste management, water and sewers, and some social services.

Even the larger municipalities struggle to perform these duties. The smaller communes simply let some of them go. According to a report by Albania’s Ministry for Local Issues, 70 percent of the smaller governmental units provide no waste collection at all. Roads are generally in bad shape and about a third of Albanians have no water or sewer service.

Yet Albania is modernizing rapidly, and as thousands of nationals who had previously left for jobs in Italy, Greece and Germany return, they are expecting better public services. According to the government report, the inability of small, fragmented local governments to deliver adequate services has “hampered the development of a democratic local government.”

The current overhaul is driven by the creative Prime Minister Edi Rama, and backed by a number of Western aid organizations. As mayor of Tirana from 2000 to 2011, Rama was credited with regenerating Tirana’s urban core with new parks and museums and even painting drab concrete buildings bright colors. Rama hopes the new governance framework will allow Albania’s other urban centers to flourish. At the same time, he hopes it will give future mayors of Tirana the tools to solve regional challenges that eluded him as mayor.

Albania is consolidating 373 units of local government into the 61 shown here. (Reforma Administrative Territoriale)

The biggest of those challenges lies outside Tirana’s historic center, where migrants have illegally built thousands of homes on land they do not own. In some cases these informal settlements have grown into dense but unplanned neighborhoods with few services and long commutes into Tirana. Sharra, for example, is a neighborhood with many minorities, such as Roma communities, built largely around a dump.

The next mayor of a significantly larger Tirana will have to wrestle with the question of how to integrate neighborhoods like Sharra into both the city’s service structure as well as its politics. Should illegal settlements be upgraded with new infrastructure? Or should some be demolished, as Rama did along the Lana River when he was mayor?

There are no easy answers. While the courts are working hard on “regularizing” the land tenure of migrants around the country—essentially declaring their residences legal—the status of more than 250,000 homes remains in limbo. Many of those homes sit within the new boundaries of Tirana.

Concerns about representation

In the Tirana mayor’s race, the candidate leading in the polls is 35-year old Erion Veliaj. He’s the candidate of Rama’s Socialist Party and a former minister of social affairs in Rama’s national government. Veliaj has pledged to follow Rama’s preference for blocking new construction in the city center, in favor of regenerating existing buildings and improving green spaces. In campaign visits to the city’s rural outskirts, Veliaj has pledged to create better transport and commercial links with the city center.

In those outer parts of the new Tirana, there’s a big question looming ahead of Sunday’s elections: How well represented will they be? Voters will choose the new city council based on lists of candidates the parties put forward, and those lists are weighted toward candidates from the city center. “The reform is healthy for Tirana,” says Dritan Shutina, director of CO-Plan, a nonprofit here focused on public participation and regional governance. “But there are remote areas where the population will suffer because they are not considered.”

Socialist Party candidate Erio Veliaj is leading in the polls to become the mayor of the new larger city of Tirana. (Simone d’Antonio)

The topic is sensitive enough that one mayoral candidate, Halim Kosova of the center-right Democratic Party, has pledged to appoint a deputy mayor and a staff dedicated to serving these outer areas. Across Albania, many of the defunct town halls of communes absorbed into larger municipalities will be converted into one-stop service centers for citizens to pick up permits or handle other administrative matters.

Rama’s government is also taking some criticism over how borders of the new jurisdictions were drawn. Some say 61 local government units is actually too few, citing the case of one in Albania’s mountainous north where it will take two hours to drive from one side of the new municipality to the other. Others say the borders were drawn to the benefit of candidates from Rama’s Socialist Party. Nevila Xhindi, Tirana’s current deputy mayor and a member of the Democratic Party, complains that borders were drawn “on an electoral basis and not on a strategic basis.”

Keys to implementation

All of the new mayors who win on Sunday will have enormous jobs ahead of them. Among other things, they’ll need to consolidate and redeploy multiple staffs; take stock of their new government’s physical assets, contracts, and data; and harmonize multiple accounting and information technology systems.

Fortunately, they’ll have the benefit of two pilot projects already underway in the new municipalities of Pogradec and Ura Vajgurore. The UN Development Programme hired the consulting firm KPMG to lead these first two consolidations and lay out a roadmap for the 59 to come.

Under the consolidation scheme, the land area of Tirana (above) will grow 25 times larger, and its population will more than double from about 420,000 to roughly 1 million. (Elzbieta Sekowska/Shutterstock.com)

That’s the top-down part of the reform. But an equally difficult job will be to foster public engagement from the bottom-up—especially in the poorer suburban areas. Civil society is weak in Albania. Until the early 1990s, residents were forced to “volunteer” their time taking care of parks or cleaning up schools. Once they were no longer compelled to do these things, many people turned away from public participation.

One grassroots effort to turn them back is coming from an association called Ecovolis. Previously, this group has had success inspiring city dwellers in Tirana to bicycle more. Now it’s focusing on the Tirana suburbs with an initiative called Lagjja ime, shtëpia ime (“my neighborhood, my home”). The goal is to turn unused public spaces into recreation areas for children, basketball courts and places for residents to gather.  

A similar effort is led by a group of professors and students of the Tirana Polytechnic University. Gjergj Islami, Dorina Pllumbi, Besar Zifla*, and their students joined a movement called Mbill pemën tënde (“Plant your tree”). Working in the Partizani neighborhood, the initiative encouraged groups of residents to plant trees as a way to strengthen their ties to the community and its future. The students also identified more than 500 empty public spaces in both urban and rural areas of Tirana which could be temporarily re-used.

Will these activities translate into more participation in local government? Dritan Shutina hopes so. He says “people need to have a new type of relationship with local authorities,” and believes that “citizens will now have more opportunities to speak up.”

But he also cautions that the new mayors will need to to work hard to create a true participatory process. Public officials will need to be accountable to all of the communities they’ll be responsible for governing—urban, suburban and rural. Otherwise, he says, “people won’t feel they are shareholders of the city.”

*CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post misspelled Besar Zifla’s name.            

This story originally appeared on Citiscope, an Atlantic partner site.

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