Albania at the crossroads on the path to the EU



“The European Union considers it of crucial importance that the 2013 parliamentary elections [in Albania] are in line with international and European standards,” EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said recently.

By all accounts, the elections in Albania on 23 June are critical to its chances of joining the European Union any time soon.

Several EU officials have said just this, including the spokesperson for the Commissioner for Enlargement and Neighbourhood Policy Štefan Füle who said that the European Commission considers holding the forthcoming elections in full accordance with international and European standards to be of vital importance.

It was also remarked that the elections will be a test of Albania’s democratic institutions and its progress on the path to EU accession.

At the moment, Albania is not putting on a very good show.

Although education rates and economic growth have been relatively positive in recent years, Albania is still one of the poorest countries in Europe; it has significant problems with energy shortages and infrastructure, and 13 per cent unemployment.

Many Albanians believe that EU ascension will answer many of the country’s social and economic problems.

According to a focus group study conducted by the National Democratic Institute, “in participants’ views, the EU represents the country’s main aspiration and their personal hope for a better future. Participants view the EU as a mechanism to mitigate all existing problems in the country through its strict monitoring and supervisory role.”

Nonetheless, the election campaigning and preparations have been marked with the same type of political manipulation and polarisation that has marred virtually every Albanian election since the early 1990s, when the country broke away from Communism.

In fact, only one election in the last 20 years has been accepted by all parties as legitimate, in some cases resulting in parliamentary boycotts. Elections there have never been considered to comport with international obligations and good practices.

During the last elections in 2011 the partisanship was so extreme, violence ensued. This year, at least in terms of the politicisation and consequent corruption of the process, would seem to be no different.

The biggest point of controversy revolves around the Central Electoral Commission (CEC), Albania’s electoral management body. International and regional obligations demand an independent, impartial institution to govern the electoral process, but this isn’t the case in Albania today.


Electoral Commission

Under the current election law, the CEC is supposed to be composed of seven members, two members proposed by the majority party in parliament, two from the largest opposition party, and then the other parliamentary majority parties and minority parties each propose a member.

The Chair is elected by parliament following an open application process. The code requires a qualified majority of five votes to adopt many major decisions throughout the course of the electoral process, including post-election challenges.

In mid-April the parliament voted to dismiss a member of the CEC who had been proposed by the Socialist Movement for Integration (LSI). Originally a member of the governing party coalition, the LSI left the government to join the opposition.

As a result, the parliament removed the LSI representative from the CEC, a move nowhere contemplated or justified in the law, and replaced him with a member aligned with the governing party.

Two other members of the CEC proposed by the opposition Socialists resigned in protest and a third member, from the Union for Human Rights, the Greek minority party, also suspended work in protest.

The CEC is now left with only four commissioners, short of a quorum to make crucial decisions.

Even before this crisis the commission was often immobilised by partisanship, and was unable to agree to basic conditions for the election, including the number of mandates conferred upon each of the election jurisdictions.

This has exacerbated the vitriolic partisan rhetoric of the campaign, undermined public confidence, led to stern words from the EU, and even more direct admonitions from the US Embassy.

The US has been remarkably vocal throughout the process, culminating in a contentious interview in Albania with the American ambassador Alexander Arvizu on the show “Opinion.” Ambassador Arvizu had contended earlier that the actions with respect to the CEC could put Albania on a collision course with the US. Albania’s political class has not taken kindly to this type of commentary.

But the CEC is not the only problem. According to citizen observers in Albania, the administration has botched the voter registration process, the campaigns all blatantly started long before the officially mandated start date of 23 May, candidates have made abusive use of state resources in their campaigns, and legally required gender quotas in the candidate lists have not been complied with.

The state of affairs is particularly unfortunate given that Albania had seemed to be starting to meet the demands of the EU over the last year, in no small part through the passage of a new election reform law, drafted with substantial assistance from the international community.

This new law revised the way in which the Chair of the CEC was chosen, introduced new technologies, revised the process of compiling the voters’ list, strengthened the independence of the Electoral College and increased sanctions for election-related violations.

Just a couple of weeks before the election, no one in Albania or outside of Albania is sure how this will all play out, especially with the parliament and the parties’ impasse regarding reconstituting the CEC so it has its full complement.

At one point, the US State Department representative for South Central European Affairs speculated that elections could be delayed.

Others have sketched out nightmare scenarios in which the election is held, is close, is contested and there is no quorum in the CEC to adjudicate it. The OSCE is clearly concerned and is contemplating adding to its already large contingent of election observers.

Certainly Albania needs to seriously reconsider its process for appointment to the election commission which inevitably leads to partisanship. It also needs to do some serious self-examination of the political process generally and the polarised and less than fully functional political state it is in.

Looking at the bigger picture, if Albania is to realise its goal of EU membership, it has a matter of days to show the world that it is seriously committed to democratic principles, or risk further delay.