Old habits die hard as Albania election draws near

By bne IntelliNews June 6, 2013

Nicholas Watson in Prague -

Albania's general election on June 23 will be heavily scrutinised to determine if it's free and fair. So far, the signs aren't good.

The latest hint that the EU is becoming increasingly worried came from the European watchdog charged with monitoring the election, no less. Ahead of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation (OSCE) setting up its mission in Albania on May 15, its chief Lamberto Zannier said his team were watching with concern the harsh rhetoric of the political debate. "We are expecting a very competitive electoral process in a challenging climate," Zannier told reporters on May 2.

Zannier cited in particular the growing spectre of extreme nationalism, the rise of which could have repercussions for the stability of the entire region. "We hope that there will not be excessive nationalism that could create elements of instability in the region," he said. "The OSCE has invested so much in Albania".

Albanian nationalism is a new wildcard to the country's elections, which previously were marred by the more typical unsavoury aspects such as intimidation, violence, vote-rigging and electoral fraud.

This time, there are worrying signs that hard line nationalists in Albania - like those in other parts of southern Europe struggling in the face of the Eurozone crisis - could make big inroads, increasing tensions in an already volatile region still recovering from the breakup of the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s and the Kosovo War.

Albania's Red and Black Alliance political party's fiery rhetoric is resonating among impoverished Albanians, dragging mainstream leaders to the right, including Prime Minister Sali Berisha, as the close-run election draws near. A May poll found the left-wing Alliance for Albania Coalition was on 46%, whereas the right-wing Alliance for Well-Being, Employment and Integration (led by Berisha's Democratic Party) had 44%.

Marking the 100th anniversary of Albanian independence from the Ottoman Empire, PM Berisha referred to towns in Macedonia, Greece, Serbia and Montenegro as "Albanian lands", newswires reported. In January, he hailed fallen Albanian guerrillas in Serbia as "heroes of the Albanian nation." Then in February, in a speech railing against "Albanophobia", Berisha rejected the idea that Albanians could be regarded as five different nations because they live in five different Balkan states. "Albanians cannot accept this," he said. "The national unity of the Albanians will be the alternative to this."

While few observers foresee a return to war to redraw borders, the spectre of a "Greater Albania" stalks the Balkans, and is used by politicians in other countries, especially Serbia, to rouse their own populations. In such a heated atmosphere, the EU struggles to get its conciliatory voice heard.

On a more basic level, the EU is trying to prevent a repeat of the last election in 2009, where fraud and violence sparked a political crisis between the Prime Minister Sali Berisha's ruling Democratic Party and the opposition Socialist Party that is still reverberating today. After the elections, politics was paralyzed, the parliament was boycotted and some in the opposition went on a hunger strike. Clashes occurred in the streets with the police, leading to several deaths.

Albania has yet to hold an independently approved election since the end of communism, and Brussels has made plain the country's progress toward joining the bloc is heavily dependent on the conduct of this election. Yet an unseemly fight over the country's own election watchdog, the Central Election Commission (CEC), promised to undermine those efforts even before the campaigning really began.

The CEC is a seven-member collegial body tasked with overseeing elections in Albania. Although its members are proposed by political parties, with a formula that grants the ruling coalition the right to propose four of the seven members, the CEC is considered an independent institution. As Gerald Knaus, chairman of the European Stability Initiative think-tank, puts it: "Central Election Commission members are political appointees and voted in by parliament, but then they become something else, like US Supreme Court judges chosen by the president and the Senate: they become guardians of rules."

The scandal began with a controversial vote in parliament pushed by the ruling coalition on April 20 that sacked a member of the CEC who had been proposed by the Socialist Movement for Integration, LSI. This was because the LSI left the ruling coalition as a junior government partner in order to join the Socialist-led opposition ahead of the June 23 election. However, members of the CEC cannot be removed for reasons unspecified in the Election Code, and the other opposition-nominated members of CEC quit the commission to protest at the sacking of a fellow commissioner, meaning the four remaining government-appointed members would not be able to validate the polls.

"There is a reason why [CEC commissioners] are appointed for six years and are not to be dismissed unless they commit a crime. They must act on the basis of the Election Code and defend it, not engage in party politics. Will they want 'their' party to win? Perhaps, but this should be irrelevant to how they do their job," says Knaus. "If things go wrong, I fear that later people will look back and point to the dismissal of the CEC member, the collapse of the CEC, and the weak international reaction as a crucial bad turning point."

The US has made noises about ending the "charade" over the election commission, yet appears no closer to forcing Berisha to back down and reappoint the commissioners. "Although the internationals are making noise, it remains to be seen if they will force Berisha's hand. If they do not, this would be par for the course," sighs Gary Kokalari, founder of Albanians for a Democratic Albania, which is involved in fighting corrupt practices in Albania. "This is all done to avoid any potential conflict because [the West's] primary mandate is to maintain stability - not enforce democracy."

Knaus says it is important that the EU takes a strong joint position now. "This would send a clear signal: some institutions must not be touched, some rules must not be broken," he says, adding: "What really matters is not who wins, but that Albanian voters have the chance to participate in a free and fair contest."

The chances of that happening, unfortunately, are looking increasingly slim.

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