Tirana during Albania's parliamentary elections, 25 June 2017. OSCE/Thomas Rymer

Tirana during Albania's parliamentary elections, 25 June 2017. OSCE/Thomas Rymer

Election Elections in Albania. Electoral flaws part of the structure

The elections in Albania were overshadowed by three issues: further EU integration through key judicial reform, and property rights. All three are closely interconnected, and illustrate the difficult changes Albania still need to face in order to become a politically, economically and judicially stable country.

Published on balticworlds.com on november 8, 2017

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Albania held regular elections for the 140 member unicameral Parliamenton 25 June 2017. These elections were generally seen as a test for the country’s readiness to take the next step on the path towards EU integration and be recommended opening membership negotiations by the Commission. The EU had insisted on important pieces of a larger package of judicial reforms to be put in motion before any further talks on membership negotiations can take place. But in February the opposition Democratic Party (DP) decided to boycott Parliament with the argument that the government, led by the Socialist Party (SP) was preparing for wide spread electoral fraud. The boycott also meant that they threatened not to participate in the upcoming elections, scheduled for June 18th. The DP presented a list of requirements for ending the boycott and participating in the elections. Their protests included concerns over increased cannabis production, connections between public officials and organized crime, and the high levels of corruption in the country. The SP, on the other hand, claimed that the real reason for the boycott was that the DP suffered from poor popular support and that the DP was trying to block a critical reform of the judiciary.

After international mediation, the two parties came to an agreement, and elections could be held somewhat postponed. They were generally calm but with the now common returning problems of political interference with the electoral administration, and procedural problems regarding the procedures in the polling stations (OSC/ODIHR 2017, p 21).

The SP won a convincing majority and will govern alone the next four years, leaving also the smaller Socialist Movement of Integration (SMI) in opposition, which has in earlier elections been able to play king maker, governing with both the SP and the DP.

The political context

The elections were overshadowed by three issues: further EU integration through key judicial reform, and property rights. All three are closely interconnected, and illustrate the difficult changes Albania still need to face in order to become a politically, economically and judicially stable country.

EU integration

The EU integration process was one of the more important factors in these elections, albeit indirectly. The EU Commission did ask for free and fair elections as a prerequisite for recommending opening of membership negotiations, but also that the politicized and corrupt judiciary would go through a thorough reform to curb corruption. That process has upset some dust in the country and affected the electoral dynamics.

Judicial reform

The Albanian society is deeply politicized and corruption is a too common feature in public and private affairs. It hampers all sections of society, including rule of law. The EU has because of thatinsisted on judicial reform, in particular means of improving judicial autonomy and lessening corruption. Such measures have included reevaluation of judges and prosecutors, controlling assets, background and professionalism in order to possibly detect connections with organized crime, suspiciously high costs of living, and other indicators of illicit behaviour.

This is part of a large judicial reform package, which includes constitutional amendments in order to reconstruct and set up new judicial institutions with the aim to strengthen autonomy, accountability and ability to combat corruption. The EU Commission insists that Albania will not be recommended to open membership negotiations until these reforms are in place and credibly implemented.

Property rights

Property rights have been a true chaos since the fall of communism, and the Prime Minister Edi Rama highlighted it as a key issue during the electoral campaign. The registers of expropriated land had been kept during communism, but over the decadesthe land had gone through substantial changes,including urbanization an construction of factories and other. The residents have no interest in leaving and resettling the land to its previous owners and their families. And the unregulated rapid, illegal, urbanization after the fall of communism means that layers of property disputes have been added to the original problem, as land has been occupied, sold, and expropriated.

The situation has been aggravated by the corrupt judicial system where rightful owners have seen their property rights being bought by contenders in court, even rulings overturned. This is a key issue to solve once and for all in order to establish stable property rights and in the extension a stable property market conducive to investments. As such it is closely connected to the issue of judicial reform and eradication of judicial corruption.

Electoral dynamics

However during the last mandate the SP governed in coalition with the SMI, a breakaway party from the SP created by the former SP Prime Minister and present President, Ilir Meta. The SMI held the justice portfolio covering two of the main issues of this election: judicial reform and property issues. Given that the SMI had shown reluctance to actually push through reform in both cases, it became important for the SP to gain an absolute majority in order to secure the needed reforms.

Boycott

The animosity between the SP and the DP is deep and well known. Boycotts of parliament are a common tool to stop processes the opposition is not comfortable with, and an expression of the lack of trust in democratic procedures and between the parties. The DP decided to boycott Parliament on 7 February 2017, arguing that the government tried to prepare for massive electoral fraud. In the extension, they did threaten with boycotting the elections and did not register according to the legal deadline. They put up a list with a number of demands, including a caretaker government until the elections, to be implemented for them to return to Parliament and to take part in the elections.

As always, the international community criticized the boycott, pointing out that it is not part of a mature democracy to walk out of Parliament and to sideline the democratic institutions in order to reach political goals.

But the boycott not only jeopardized electoral preparations, it also stalled some key legislation connected to the judicial reform, in particular the vetting commissions with the duty to scrutinize judges, prosecutors and their assistants for signs of corruption and illicit behavior.

While electoral misconduct has been commonplace since the fall of communism, and thus the boycott was not unexpected, there are also reasons to believe that the boycott had another purpose: to stall, or at least delay, this vetting process. A good number of persons in the judicial system were put in place during DP-rule, and it is not surprising that the SP Prime Minister Edi Rama claimed that the real purpose of the boycott was to keep these persons in the system.

After international criticism and negotiations the SP and the DP came to an agreement on May 18th, stipulating that the DP could fill a number of key positions, including one deputy prime minister, six ministers, the Chairperson of the CEC and directors of several public agencies (OsservatoriBalcani e Caucaso). Further, the agreement included commitments to continue with judicial and electoral reform and to institutionalize dialogue between the two party leaders. The election day was slightly postponed to allow the opposition to register within the legal deadline.

That agreement secured the return to Parliament and the continued participation in the electoral process by the DP.

Electoral preparation and conduct

Albania has a long history of electoral misconduct. It is common to find procedural errors such as missing to control for invisible ink, or indeed making voters use it. Too often the number of ballots does not correspond with the number of signatures on the voter’s list, and there is evidence of ballot box stuffing in almost every election. Given that this occurs every election, it is very difficult to attain the behavior to lack of knowledge and experience. It is a part of a systematic behavior with its own logic based on the organization of power in the Albanian society.

The OSCE/ODIHR election observation mission points at a number of irregularities, and highlights the recurring problem of political parties changing their representatives in the electoral administration without prior warning and even on election day (OSCE/ODIHR 2017). This means that trained staff is exchanged with untrained persons, that the dynamics of the commissions change, sometimes dramatically, and that there is a built in insecurity for the people running the elections.

The parties cite the risk of their representatives being bribed to “work for the other party” in the electoral administration as the reason for this clause and the behavior it legitimizes. This indicates strongly that the parties are meddling with the elections in the polling stations, and that they try to keep the other party from doing so.

The electoral campaign did as usual focus on personalities and their qualities, predominantly the party leaders, rather than on programmatic issues. The OSCE/ODIHR electoral observation mission writes about a number of incidents and attacks during the electoral campaign, mainly directed towards SMI premises and representatives, some persons even being hospitalized (OSCE/ODIHR 2017, p 12).

As in previous elections there were allegations of vote buying, and that both public and private employees had been pressured to vote for one party or the other by their employer. Such allegations proceeded also during election day, including party representatives appearing to instruct voters on whom to vote for.

The detailed reporting from the OSCE/ODIHR monitoring mission reveals that both the opening and closing procedures were assessed negatively in over 15% of the observed cases, mainly because of procedural errors.Also counting and tabulation of results suffered from some procedural errors. They tactically avoid giving an assessment whether, or to what degree, the elections followed international standards on elections, partly revealing the delicacy and importance of these elections for Albania.

Results

Voter turnout was particularly low during these elections, 46.7%, compared to 53,46 in 2013. Many commentators point to the fact that the elections were held at the very end of the holy month of Ramadan, and coincided with the Eid al fitr. As such many families celebrated together and apparently opted out of voting.

Party Results Mandates 2017 Mandates 2013 Difference
SP 48,3% 74 65 (coalition) +9
DP 28,8% 43 50 (coalition) -7
SMI 14,2% 19 16 (In coalition with SP and others) +3
Social Democratic Party SDP 0,95% 1 +1
Justice, Integration and Unity Party 4,81% 3 4 (In coalition with DP and others) -1
Others 0 5 (smaller coalition parties affiliated to both the DP and SP)

 

In contrast to the 2013 elections, when both the SP and the DP went to elections in big coalitions with a large number of very small parties, this time they decided to go alone. The SP won a secure majority and is now able to govern without any coalition partner, liberating themselves from the SMI. This means that Mr Rama has no excuses no to push through the much needed reforms on the judiciary and property rights.

Conclusions and analysis

For those following Albania and Albanian elections over the years the picture is becoming increasingly clearer: electoral flaws are part of a political pattern as social structures which cannot be eradicated by training alone.

The electoral administration has been under scrutiny for years, with training sessions and efforts to improve their conduct, but it is far too obvious that the problem is not of knowledge, but structural and political. Albania is a typically patronal society, organized in power pyramids very similar to patrimonial and clientelistic logics of patrons and clients (Hale 2015). Elections are a key aspect of the distribution of power and patronage in a patronal society, and Albania is no exception. This has strong effects on elections, electoral conduct and electoral dynamics.

The electoral administration has through some key changes in the electoral law come under direct political control, and the political parties can withdraw their representatives as they see fit when they do not work strictly for the party or when they are suspected of having been bought by the other side. The mistrust is so deep between the parties that they go against all international advice to retain this right, and use it quite frequently. The political parties simply do not trust even its own members, and take to extreme measures to try to win and not being cheated upon.

This behavior obviously also spills into the political arena, partly explaining why boycotts of parliament and the electoral preparations are so common. Rather than going into a process where the opposition feels excluded, they walk out and effectively stall it instead. This is how the boycott during the spring 2017 should be understood: as a measure to be able to exercise control of the political and electoral preparations for the upcoming elections.

Albanian elections will not follow international democratic standards until the political parties trust the electoral administration, including the standing Central Election Commission, to be working autonomously and independently. But since the parties do not allow these structures to be independent, elections will continue to be flawed, disturbed and only partly democratic.

References

Hale, Henry (2015) Patronal Politics: Eurasian Regime Dynamics in Comparative Perspective, New York: Cambridge University Press

OSCE/ODIHR (2017) Republic of Albania, Parliamentary Elections 25 June 2017, OSCE/ODIHR Election Observation Mission, Final Report, Warsaw 28 September 2017

OsservatoriBalcani e Caucaso “Agreement reached, Albania will vote on June 25th”, https://www.balcanicaucaso.org/eng/Areas/Albania/Agreement-reached-Albania-will-vote-on-June-25th-180344

 

 

  • by Jessica Giandomenico

    PhD in political science at Uppsala Institute for Russian and Eurasian Studies. Her research interests focus on the Western Balkans, EU foreign policy, power theory, elections, and social transformation.

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