Final Elections Report Lists Achievements, Failures

Author: megi / Date: 18-02-2015 /

Final Elections Report Lists Achievements, Failures 

 Tirana Times - http://tiranatimes.com/ 

OSCE/ODIHR report on Albanian local elections delivers balanced message, calling elections ‘competitive and transparent’ but having ‘highly disputed post-election actions’ 

By Anastasia Nazarko 

Albania’s May 8 local elections were competitive and transparent but they were also highly polarized, with mistrust between political parties in government and opposition. Furthermore, there were highly disputed post-election actions taken by the Central Elections Commission with regard to determining the results of the Tirana mayoral race. Those were just two of the findings of the final report on Albania’s elections released last week by OSCE’s main elections monitoring body, the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights. 

Both of Albania’s main political parties said the report was objective; however, they gave different interpretations of what the OSCE/ODIHR monitoring officials said in the report. International representatives in Tirana are urging the Albanian governing and opposition parties to focus on the entirety of report, and learn from its recommendations. 

The report’s findings 

The OSCE/ODHIR mission assessed the elections not only based on their compliance with OSCE commitments, but also on other international standards for democratic elections, and national legislation. Though the report’s release comes months after election day, its assessment and recommendations provide a crucial element for Albania’s future progress. 

The violent demonstrations of Jan. 21 brought the political environment to a crisis, the report notes in its assessment of the pre-election process. “The overall political environment affected the work and the collegiality of the CEC,” it stated. 

The disagreements caused by the tension then created delays and the opposition-nominated members of the CEC even refused to participate in pre-election sessions from January to April. Given the resulting inefficiencies and failure to meet several deadlines, the problems plaguing Albania’s electoral system began to emerge well before the elections were held on May 8, according the report. 

The ODIHR report adds the campaign process throughout the country leading up to election day was conducted relatively well -- though some issues did arise, including cases of violence and instances of political pressure being applied to state employees with regard to their votes. The report also noted that media, for the most part, conducted their role in the campaign well. 

“The plurality and diversity of media outlets allowed the voters to choose from a variety of views in these elections. However, both broadcast and print media were divided along political lines,” it stated. 

Though the report concluded that voting on election day went well and the elections were free and competitive, it also noted significant problems which need to be addressed in the future. They included “fully ensuring respect for secrecy of the vote and implementing safeguards for electoral integrity.” It noted “group/family voting, which violated the secrecy of the vote, was observed in 21 percent of voting centers visited.” 

Yet, it wasn’t until after the voting process ended and ballot counting began that the political tension truly escalated. The first factor that led to this was the lengthy counting process. Surprisingly, according to the Electoral Code, ballot counting was supposed to finish by 5 p.m. on the day following the election. “This deadline was considered unrealistic by all interlocutors and not one BCC finished the counting by this time,” remarked the report. Indeed, counting in the ballot counting centers outside of Tirana ended on May 14, while in Tirana it concluded on May 23. 

But why did the Tirana vote count last for the better half of a month? ”Counting in these ballot counting centers was frequently delayed by unscheduled breaks, absence of counting team members and obstructions that appeared, at times, to be politically motivated. [Also] Democratic Party officials called for the miscast ballots for the Tirana mayor race found in these boxes to be counted as valid and on the basis that the will of the voter was clear,” the OSCE/ODIHR report noted. 

Though the latter development occurred only after Socialist Party leader Edi Rama was declared the preliminary winner by a margin of 10 votes, its effect was immense and prolonged the electoral saga for the months to come. Appeals and back and forth discussions between both political parties, the CEC and the Electoral College contributed to Tirana’s post-election resolution which consisted of, according to ODIHR, inconsistencies, lacking legal basis, and a final result of victory for the Democratic candidate Lulzim Basha by a margin of 81 votes. 

In addition, the report concluded that, “The CEC overall failed to provide plaintiffs with effective redress.” 

In light of the problematic nature of May’s local elections, primarily in Tirana but also in other areas throughout the country, one could expect the ODIHR’s recommendations for the future to be critical and decisive. The fact that Albania has consistently failed to hold elections which meet international standards should be alarming and considered a red flag for change. 

As the report itself noted, Albania still struggled to meet ODIHR’s 2009 recommendations. Yet, the suggestions outlined in the report remained neutral and general. Electoral legal and institutional reforms, respect for deadlines, further independence of the media, reforms for effective redress of complaints, staffing suggestions and minority and women’s rights were all areas needing future attention and improvement, noted the report. Also of utmost importance: “Parties should demonstrate the political will for the conduct of democratic elections commensurate with the broad privileges they enjoy under the law in regard to the conduct of elections,” the agency added. 

Reactions to the report 

Within 30 minutes of the report’s release, reaction from Albania’s political parties began to surface. Given the almost general, fact-based nature of the report, each party desperately worked to use ODIHR’s observations as support for their respective claims. Prime Minister Sali Berisha focused on the report’s description of the elections as competitive and transparent. 

“The report, clearly considers the May 8 elections as competitive, transparent and as the elections that lay the groundwork for future progress,” Berisha said. 

From the Socialist Party’s perspective, the final report gave credibility to their accusations that the elections were stolen. 

“OSCE/ODIHR failed Berisha. The report is the certification of the spectacular failure of this government for giving the citizens fair and free elections, in full accordance with the minimal democratic standards that are acceptable by the civilized world,” said Socialist MP Sajmir Tahiri in his party’s first response to the report. 

Later, Socialist leader Edi Rama sent several Albanian daily newspapers an opinion piece with his reaction to the report. 

“The report objectively noted the problems that were seen during the process. The report proved that no further elections can be held in Albania with this Electoral Code. We are not the only ones saying this, but [also] the international referee,” Rama wrote. 

While both main political parties presented opposing interpretations of ODIHR’s final report, the international community has used the report as an opportunity to call on Albania to move forward. 

EU Ambassador to Albania, Ettore Sequi, noted that it would be most useful for Albania to take the report’s recommendations and use them to address the future. 

“I will repeat the same phrase to the political parties, saying that they must start dialogue in order to continue the reforms. To have integration into the European Union , all these required reforms should be implement,” he said. 

Indeed, if anything is to be gained from this final report it is the repeated call for a vision toward the future with Albania’s -- not the politicians’-- benefit in mind. 

Until now, as evidenced by ODIHR’s observations, near-sighted party politics and animosity has done little but create huge inefficiencies which resulted in failures to abide by basic regulations such as deadlines. How can a state be expected to run well if its politicians fail to meet such simple tasks? Their disregard for even the minor elements of important processes not only reflects the defects in the current Albanian political culture but also erodes civil society’s faith in their country’s prospect of significant progress. 

In addition, the fact that both parties are unable to objectively view the report’s recommendations as a need for change on both sides, but rather are choosing to use it as fuel for their respective arguments, signifies that change is yet to come. Both sides suffer from mistrust of the other, but neither seeks to do their part to solve such a dilemma. Where is the proverbial olive branch? Calling for democracy means little if one is unwilling to make the changes and sacrifices necessary to achieving it. 

This final report by the OSCE/ODIHR election observation agency cannot correct the past, and indeed, as noted by Ambassador Sequi, that is not the goal. Instead, it must be utilized as a tool for the future. 

Perhaps it was more vague or general than some expected, but the point is that problems were identified and recommendations have been made. If they are not objectively taken into consideration by both parties, then little can be expected for Albania’s electoral future. 

If, as was the case with the agency’s 2009 recommendations, many are left by the wayside, Albania will unfortunately continue to flail in its current state. Thus with the future, and only the future in mind, it is time for Albania’s political culture to accept what has been decided until now, take the roadmap of recommendations and use it to chart the way forward. 

Eluding standards 

Jonathan Stonestreet, the head of the OSCE/ODIHR Observing Mission for the May 8 elections had promised to discuss the issue of the EU standards since May 10. 

In a press conference, two days after the elections were held, Stonestreet said the elections were competitive and transparent, although OSCE would discuss the standard issue later. 

“The local government elections were competitive and transparent, but took place in an environment of high polarization and mistrust between parties in government and opposition. There were developments that showed a democratic progress of the elections in Albania, but there are many issues that remain to be treated by the authorities. I know that you want from me to give different epithets to these elections, maybe positive ones, but I am not in position to do such a thing,” Stonestreet said back then. 

Three months later, when the final report was published, Stonestreet’s team doesn’t mention the world “standard” anywhere in the report, regardless his promise. 

Before the elections, Brussels’ declarations for fulfilling EU standards with these elections were repeated several times as a necessity, and one of EU priorities for Albania was to guarantee elections in full accordance with EU and international standards. 

But the 36 pages long report doesn’t give a straightforward opinion if the elections fulfilled the EU standards completely, partially or not at all. 

An Albanian daily newspaper, Mapo, put that question to the spokesperson of ODIHR, Thomas Rymer. Why is the word “standard” missing, and were they fulfilled? 

“If the elections fulfilled the standards, the report clearly specifies the parts where these standards were fulfilled, and also the parts where the standards were not fulfilled. The report underlines that both political parties did not complete their duties with responsibility and that the controversial decision taken by the Central Election Commission, regarding the result for the Mayor of Tirana, undermined the trust that CEC was acting as an impartial and independent institution,” the ODHIR spokesman told the newspaper, citing the report. “The report also confirms that the pluralism and diversity of media offered to the electors the possibility of choosing from a great number of alternatives and that the vote counting process was generally positive.” 

Despite the explanation given by the spokesperson for ODIHR, it is still unclear why the report doesn’t give a more clear evaluation for the elections’ standards, leaving room to different interpretations that serve to both parties’ convenience. 

DP, SP spin report their way 

Prime Minister Sali Berisha is clearly a man that doesn’t believe in taking any vacations when there is political territory to be gained. While his Socialist rivals were slow to respond to the report, Berisha was giving a press conference within an hour of its release. 

“Expressing my gratitude for the international observers and the countries that committed them in the monitoring process, the competent heads of this mission as well as the domestic observers, I say, the report is objective and inspiring,” he said. “The report appreciates in a crystal clear way the May 8 local government elections in Albania as competitive and transparent and highlights the fact that the positive aspects of these elections have laid the groundwork for future progress.” 

Berisha added the report values the May 8 elections as competitive. “Competitiveness is the main pillar of having free and fair elections. It is found in the right of all the candidates for registration in the electoral race and citizens taking part as equal in front of the law in elections. But, competitiveness in the Copenhagen Charter carries another essential element, equality to financial sources, staff of the ruling majority and opposition,” he said. “The ODIHR Final Report appreciates the elections as transparent and positively evaluates the electoral system. This is a special evaluation of the system and if the first feature confirms an iron political will, the second is evidence of functioning of the rule of law. The rule of law functioned. Every vote cast was counted, evaluated and calculated in the most transparent way. Hence, these elections were appropriately assessed as transparent.” 

Berisha said it was natural to highlight issues surrounding the close Tirana vote, but he added they were akin to the close elections for U.S. president between Al Gore and George Bush in 2000, maintaining a partly line he has pushed before. 

“These competitive and transparent elections are characteristic of the free countries that also do have the law and even the political willingness to hold competitive and transparent elections,” he said. 

Socialist Party leader Edi Rama, who appears to have taken a few days off this August, commented in written form – through an opinion piece sent to several Albanian daily newspapers. 

“The report lashed the Central Election Commission and the Electoral College, and no elections can be held any more in Albania with this Electoral Code. Same as the elections cannot be held with these voters’ lists, which leave the emigrants’ vote to the government for using it to their convenience,” Rama said. “We are not the only ones saying this, as a highly damaged opposition by the brutal action of these institutions, but the international referee. … I have no regret for the peaceful approach to this process, for following a legal way until the end, in order to not incite violence even when a bunch of malefactors, covered with judges suit, sealed with a court decision the violent theft of Tirana Municipality,” Rama said, referring to his loss in the Tirana mayor election, which he claims he won. 

He added, “Same as I have no doubt for the necessity of implementing our new political course, our parliamentary battle for reforming the Electoral Code based on the statements and recommendations of ODIHR, in order to create more connective ways and intensify the communication with the citizens for discussing the biggest issues of our country, and the need for giving the Albanians a new governing alternative.” 

Before Rama sent his written statement, his party spokesman MP Tahiri called a press conference, saying “The report is the certification of the spectacular failure of this government for giving the citizens fair and free elections, in full accordance with the minimal democratic standards that are acceptable by the civilized world. The report says that the result for Tirana is not based on law, but on controversial decisions taken by the Central Election Commission and the Electoral College, not based on law and politically motivated. 

Tahiri added, “the fake smile of our Prime Minister yesterday was completely unjustifiable. He rushed to put the next imaginary medal on his chest, same as he tries to lie to the Albanians about economic increase and reforms that remain as such only inside Berisha’s head.” 

International representatives: Read and learn from the report 

European Union Ambassador in Albania, Ettore Sequi, appealed once again for political dialogue in Albania following the release of the report. Referring to the OSCE/ODIHR report, Ambassador Sequi urged political parties to respect the required recommendations for electoral reform. 

“I will repeat the same phrase to the political parties, saying that they must start dialogue in order to continue the reforms,” said Sequi during a visit in the northern city of Shkodra. 

German Ambassador to Tirana Carole Muller-Holtkemper spoke about the OSCE/ODIHR report with Albania’s Top Channel television station, noting that the parties should carefully read all of the report, not just the parts they like. 

“The report gives us a good picture of what happened and elections’ performance,” she said, “It is not black or white, as can be expected by many. There is no blue or red as the colors of the two largest political parties. I would say there are shadows of gray.” 

The full report is available at goo.gl/kPouo 

Some of the report’s recommendations: 

The report offers some key recommendations for the consideration of the authorities, political parties, election administrators and civil society of Albania, in further support of their efforts to conduct elections fully in line with OSCE commitments and other international standards for democratic elections. 

• The first recommendation from the OSCE/ODIHR Final Report on the 2009 parliamentary elections should be considered an immediate priority: Parties should demonstrate the political will for the conduct of democratic elections commensurate with the broad privileges they enjoy under the law in regard to the conduct of elections. They should discharge their electoral duties in a responsible manner for the general interest of Albania. This extends to the performance of election commissioners and elected and appointed officials at all levels, who should refrain from basing election-related actions and decisions on political considerations. 
• Electoral reform should be undertaken well in advance of the next parliamentary election. Discussion of electoral reform should include not only political parties, but also the Central Election Commission, relevant state authorities, and domestic observer groups. 
• The formula for the composition of the Central Election Commission could be reconsidered so as to increase confidence in its independence and in its impartial application of the Electoral Code. 
• Political parties should be obliged to respect the deadlines in the electoral process, in particular the nomination and training of election commission members. The Electoral Code should specify measures to be applied when such deadlines are not met. 
• Legal deadlines for the registration of candidates for local elections should be aligned with practical deadlines such as the printing of the ballots and the deadlines for appeals. This is particularly relevant in local elections since the number and variety of ballots to be printed 
• The Electoral Code should be amended to address the validity of ballots cast in the wrong ballot box, procedures for including such ballots in the table of results, and the procedures to be followed in case of discrepancies when the number of ballots cast exceeds the number of signatures in the voter list. The Electoral Code may also benefit from a review of the definition of contested ballots and of the procedures for contesting ballots.