Armed with quirky web humour and pop references, Albania’s spunky Prime Minister Edi Rama is embracing the art of the internet meme, waging political battles online across an arsenal of social networks.
When student protesters refused his offer for negotiations last month, the 54-year-old leader beckoned them on Instagram.
But his call for dialogue was not a staid plea filmed behind a desk but rather a meme showing a cut-out of his face pasted onto the gyrating body of a cartoon character.
The animated figure was dancing to the lyrics of an Albanian pop song: “I’m waiting for you as usual…I still hope…because I know that you will come some day”.
A week later, when a right-wing lawmaker pelted Rama with an egg in parliament, he retorted with a video of a clumsy hen bearing the leader of the opposition and waddling across the screen to lay an egg.
Another favourite target is former President Sali Berisha, whose face Rama stuck on the cartoon body of the American singer Meghan Trainor, singing her pop hit “All about that bass.”
On Halloween he gave Berisha, 74, a pumpkin top for a hat and a skeleton for a body doing the ‘dab’ dance gesture.
All this is mixed in with mundane photos featuring the bearded politician’s meetings with foreign leaders, plus occasional posts about basketball – Rama was a former player and even his own artwork – he is a trained painter.
Rama is also active on Twitter and Facebook, where he has more than 1.1 million subscribers, far ahead of the other regional power in the Western Balkans, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic.
According to Iris Luarasi, a political analyst, the Albanian premier uses his online humour as “a double-edged political weapon: to calm the situation and intimidate the opponent.”
It is not uncommon for the leader directly to engage commentators online.
In one recent Facebook post to a critic, he wrote that he does not have a “magic wand to instantly close the wounds that others have opened in Albania over the past half century”.
But he can be less gracious with his political rivals.
After the egg incident in parliament and an opposition boycott of parliament, his tweet was far more vulgar than the amusing Instagram animation. Rama wrote: “During the boycott months, their MPs had to kill time by raping the chickens to loot the eggs”.
When asked by a Facebook user if his tone on social media was appropriate for someone in his position, he responded:
“It is better to have a prime minister who has a sense of humour than a prime minister who kills, steals, destroys his country,” alluding to right-wing leader Berisha, who preceded him as premier having earlier been president.
Rama’s communication department refused to comment on his social media habits.
But the premier says he manages his accounts himself, sometimes late into the night.
“Even in the afterlife, you will find a prime minister who will answer every message on WhatsApp and prepare Insta-stories for you”, he wrote on Facebook.
More than a hobby, it is also a way to bypass traditional media and live-stream his speeches and other activities directly to the people.
A well-known columnist before entering politics, Rama has also drawn criticism for pushing legislation that would boost state regulation of online media in what he dubs a fight against fake news.
“He himself acts as an editorialist and polemicist,” said Aleksander Cipa, head of the Union of Journalists.
“He is not trying to listen, just to convince people that he is right,” added his colleague Lutfi Dervishi.
To “Bekim”, a Facebook user who wrote to Rama saying his behaviour on the platform would be grounds for immediate dismissal in a country like Switzerland, the prime minister responded: “Talking with one’s people is a duty, not a waste of time. When I started using Twitter, Swiss politicians didn’t have accounts yet”.
He concluded: “Don’t waste the opportunity to communicate with me about nonsense. Maybe we can talk about something useful.”