TIRANA | Since the collapse of communism in 1991 Albania has witnessed a series of elections marked by fraud and violence, culminating in the 2009 vote that brought on a political crisis that reverberates to this day. When Albanians go to the polls later this month to elect a new parliament – following a campaign already marred by claims of biased television coverage, questionable voter lists, political pressure on government employees, and reports of vote-buying – an army of local and international observers will be standing at the ready to ensure fairness, or at least keep tabs on misbehavior.
But it won’t be just election monitors and pro-democracy groups keenly observing what happens here on 23 June. European Union officials in Brussels and Tirana have made clear that they see the election as a crucial measure of Albania’s democratic credentials and its battered aspirations to join the bloc.
“The elections will be a test for the functioning of democratic institutions, and it’s crucial they are held in accordance to European and international standards,” EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton warned on an April visit to Tirana.
If the raised stakes mark a new phase for Albania’s European ambitions, the key players remain the same, with the ruling center-right Democratic Party of Prime Minister Sali Berisha facing off against the Socialists of Edi Rama, the former mayor of Tirana.
Berisha, the uncontested leader of the Democrats since 1991, is seeking his third parliamentary mandate after serving as president from 1992 to 1997. Rama led the capital city from 2000 to 2011 and was elected chairman of the Socialist Party in 2005.
According to a poll by the Italian Piepoli Institute for Tirana’s Vizion Plus TV, published on 24 May, Rama’s left-wing coalition has the edge with 50.5 percent support, against 42 percent for Berisha’s coalition. A more recent survey commissioned by Ora News TV showed similar results, giving Rama’s alliance 50 percent of the national vote and Berisha’s 43 percent.
However, because of Albania’s complicated regional, proportional voting system, the results could turn out to be much closer than opinion polls indicate.
With the race still viewed as very much up for grabs, some observers have voiced alarm over the polarized political climate and a row over control of the Central Election Commission that could open the door for abuses.
“The election campaign is starting in a climate of deep distrust between the two main parties and with a truncated and abnormally functioning [Central Election Commission],” the Coalition of Domestic Observers, a watchdog group made up of nongovernmental organizations, said in a report issued on 27 May. “During this campaign, a series of violations has been identified, such as cases of the use of public administration resources, the use of children, and the use of the institutional activities for the electoral campaign.”
The seven-member commission is tasked with overseeing elections in Albania. Its members are proposed by political parties under a formula that grants the ruling coalition the right to fill four seats, but it is considered an independent institution.
However, the commission has been operating with only four members – none from the opposition – since April, when parliament replaced one member, Ilirjan Muho, in a controversial vote, and three others resigned in protest.
Muho was ousted after the party that had nominated him to the commission, the Socialist Movement for Integration, quit the government coalition to join the opposition ahead of the election. The Socialist Movement’s exit from the ruling group gave the opposition a majority on the commission, which Berisha said “destroyed the electoral balance.” He was replaced by a commissioner from the Republican Party, a coalition member.
The opposition condemned the vote, arguing that there was no legal basis to dismiss Muho and that his sacking put the commission’s independence at risk.
The U.S. ambassador in Tirana, Alexander Arvizu, criticized Muho’s ouster, saying it changed the election rules in the middle of the game. “The [Central Election Commission] should be free from interference by any individual, by any institution, and that includes the parliament of Albania,” he said.
Along with the turmoil at the commission, there have been media reports of pressure being put on public officials by the government and the use of government resources in the campaign, according to Gjergj Erebara, editor of Tirana daily Shqip.
“The aggressive manner in which public assets are being used by the government in the campaign and reports of vote buying from the poorest of the poor are at a level never seen in the past,” Erebara said. “If the ruling party wins the election, it will certainly draw a reaction not only from the opposition but Albanians at large.”
According to Aranita Brahaj, project coordinator at ZaLart (Raised Voice), a crowdsourcing project that collects citizens’ reports on electoral fraud, ruling-party pressure on government employees and vote-buying incidents are taking various forms.
“Votes can be sold for money, but they can also be exchanged for goods and services,” she said. “Especially when vulnerable families are identified as opposition voters, they are asked to hand over their IDs in exchange for money, denying their right to vote.”
Brahaj cited reports to ZaLart of local government vehicles being used to distribute political posters. Public employees also face pressure to attend rallies.
“We have seen candidates paying for prom parties and school trips for first-time voters, and in one case it was reported that the school allowed students to cheat on their graduation exams in order to win sympathy” for Berisha’s ruling Democrats, she added.
Such reports have also alarmed the Catholic Church, an institution that has rarely intervened in the fraught political disputes of Tirana’s elite. In an open letter on 19 May, the Bishops’ Conference of Albania called on the country’s Catholics not to sell their votes while urging politicians to clean up their confrontational rhetoric.
“Trading one’s vote is selling out freedom,” the bishops wrote. “We urge political parties and candidates on the campaign trail to hold a positive campaign and not go down to the level of insults, swearing, and humiliation of an opponent and their family.”
Brussels is also paying attention, repeatedly underlining the importance of the election for Albania’s EU prospects, according to Gjergji Vurmo, director of the Center for European & Security Affairs at the Institute for Democracy and Mediation in Tirana.
“The parliamentary elections are important because they are expected to impose a new rhythm on reforms, on the relationship of Albania with the EU, and Brussels’ trust that Albania’s politicians can work constructively after four years of stagnation,” he said.
The disputed vote of 28 June 2009 – two months after Albania formally applied for EU membership – saw Berisha’s center-right coalition win a slim plurality over Rama’s center-left alliance, which claimed fraud. The standoff hardened into a months-long opposition boycott of parliament and boiled over into riots in January 2011.
After a hotly contested municipal election in Tirana the following May, there was a rare interregnum of relative peace, but the honeymoon did not last long or produce major legislative breakthroughs. Parliament did pass a reform of the electoral code and approved an amendment to Albania’s constitution stripping politicians and judges of immunity last year, but it was not enough for the EU, which in December denied the country candidate status for the third time.
The EU Council of Ministers, comprising the heads of state or government of member countries, said that despite some progress Albania had to do more in the “fight against corruption and organized crime and conduct elections according to international standards.” In its enlargement report, the council called the 2013 balloting “a crucial test for the smooth functioning of the country's democratic institutions.”
Gledis Gjipali, head of European Movement Albania, a Tirana think-tank that promotes pro-European policies and EU integration, said the shadow of 2009 still looms large over the EU’s views.
“The last parliamentary election created a political and institutional crisis that stagnated Albania’s reform process,” he said. “If elections are held that meet international standards, that would be enough for the European Commission and the Council [of Ministers] to approve Albania’s candidate status in the fall as an encouragement for further reforms.”
But a suspect vote could cost Albania more than a chance to obtain its elusive candidate status this year, Gjipali added. The EU might even suspend a key pre-accession agreement.
“Although it remains to be seen if Brussels will intervene more heavy-handedly than it has in the past, Albania could see cuts in foreign aid or a suspension of the stabilization and association agreement with the EU,” Gjipali said.