Albania’s second disputed election in three years threatens to push the country over the edge.
Almost two weeks after local elections, preliminary results have yet to be announced. This is the time for sustained, coordinated international action to press parties to abide by the legal framework in place. The Socialist Party should immediately appeal the decision of the Central Election Commission (CEC), to change counting procedures, to the highest appropriate legal mechanism (the Electoral College), which should decide the issue on the basis of current practice. All parties should exercise restraint if conflict is to be avoided; clarity is urgently required for the smooth running of future elections.
The Economist is not exaggerating when it writes that, Albania today stands “on the brink” of a return to violence”. A tight mayoral race in Tirana, a highly polarised environment which contributed to four deaths in January, and divisions within the security forces make bloodshed an unnerving possibility unless legal procedures are fully respected. Albania has a history of disputed elections, parliamentary boycotts and political violence.
The unofficial preliminary results of the Tirana vote gave the incumbent, Socialist Party (SP) leader Edi Rama, an edge of just ten ballots over his rival, former Interior Minister Lulzim Basha, out of a quarter million cast. In a sense then, no one won the mayoral race: for all practical purposes, it was a draw.
Albania nonetheless has to grant victory to one of the candidates on the most scrupulous application of previously-agreed rules. Any tactical application of new counting rules, no matter how fair they might sound in isolation, would ex-post facto alter the rules of the game and risk plunging Albania into chaos.
After the Central Election Commission (CEC) — dominated by the Democratic Party (DP), which is part of the coalition behind Basha — decided to change the counting procedure on 18 May, Rama and his Socialist supporters began threatening large scale protests. Minor clashes occurred between SP Members of Parliament and the police in front of the CEC immediately after announcement of the postponement. Two SP deputies are now under investigation for fomenting violence. There were more disturbances on 19 May.
Until that point, the 8 May elections were generally considered calm, though at times voting was slow, and counting was a drawn out process. The delay was compounded when the CEC did not publish preliminary results for the Tirana race.
The OSCE, the EU, and the US and European embassies in Tirana called on the CEC to complete tabulation of the Tirana results and publish them expeditiously on 17 May. They also noted that the appeals and claims procedures should be fully respected and the two main parties, the Socialist and Democratic Parties, should exercise self-restraint. The EU and EU High Representative Catherine Ashton made similar statements on 18 May. Ashton also added “All political leaders carry a particular responsibility not to put lives of citizens at risk.” Crisis Group fully supports these exhortations.
But instead of heeding this call, the CEC — by a vote of four to three, which seems in itself against the electoral code — decided on 18 May to include irregular ballots from several Tirana elections administration zones in the final tally, not only further delaying the process but potentially — some say likely — changing the result. Voters who had multiple ballots in Tirana to put in designated boxes sometimes failed to do so correctly, in part because the ballots were not clearly distinguished by color. The status of these ballots is the technical source of the current conflict.
The Election Code does not clearly state what should happen to these ballots. But in the 2007 local elections and 2009 general elections, they were considered invalid. Experts in the CEC had strongly advised the CEC to clarify the status of these misplaced ballots before election day, but they failed to do so. During most training sessions, commissioners were told to consider them invalid, and most election commissioners on this basis finalised the counting process for Tirana mayor and country wide.
The SP has said that it will use all available legal channels to oppose the CEC decision to count the contested or invalid ballots, and it has called for massive protests. It has not yet appealed, but should do so immediately as it has only five days to do so to the Electoral College after the 18 May CEC decision. The College then has five days to issue a verdict.
In its Preliminary Findings and Conclusions for the 8 May election, the International Elections Observation Mission (IEOM) positively assessed the work of the Electoral College (the Court of Appeals of Tirana), whose decisions are final, but noted that it did not provide its reasoning which is crucial when a decision is returned to the CEC for review. It also determined that the election code contains important gaps.
These legal and technical disputes now risk exacerbating an already deep and resentful political conflict between Rama, still the sitting Mayor of the capital city, and Albanian’s Prime Minister Sali Berisha and their respective supporters. Public protests risk becoming violent in the currently highly charged environment. An investigation into the deadly violence at an SP rally in January has yet to be completed. Throughout the campaign period there were a large number of violent election-related incidents in several regions, including the killing of an SP candidate’s relative, non-fatal shooting incidents, explosions targeting the property of candidates and parties, beatings and threats, which marred the campaign environment according to the IEOM and Crisis Group observation. A conflict between the Tirana police and the Ministry of Interior and each other’s authority to intervene to respond to public protests also developed during the campaign.
While the SP is likely to feel that it can only attract the wider international community’s attention to developments in Albania if it holds massive street protects, the DP is likely to feel that protests and violence will work in its favor and further discredit Rama. If the Electoral College rules in favor of the CEC, the CEC members from the SP are unlikely to certify the final results, and Rama is highly unlikely to recognise any election results that overturn his expected win. If it rules in favor of the SP, a peaceful outcome is still possible as the SP and DP will continue to divide power — and its spoils — in Albania.
The EU, US and OSCE played a coordinated and effective role during the campaign period to reduce tensions. They must continue to do the same now, reinforcing from capitals the messages of the local embassies, especially as Albania is an EU candidate country that still has to undergo significant reforms to start full fledged membership negotiations.
The international community should clearly demand that Basha and Rama firmly commit to respect the verdict of the Electoral College. The European Commission should lift its recommendation to give Albania EU candidacy status if there is violence leading to fatalities during post election rallies.
President of the EU Commission Jose Manuel Barroso and Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fule were supposed to be in Tirana today [20 May] but canceled their trip at the last minute, allegedly to show their displeasure with current developments. They lost the chance to deliver a consistent message to the parties clearly, in person. The international community should not squander such opportunities again.