Elections 2017: What’s at stake? Seven things to keep in mind as Albanians head to the polls

Elections 2017: What’s at stake? Seven things to keep in mind as Albanians head to the polls

The parliamentary elections that will be held this Sunday, June 25, 2017, are unique in Albania’s recent history. They are the most unpredictable and the calmest since the fall of communism. They are also a paradox as elections go. And

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Turkish president urges unity among Albanians ahead of elections

Turkish president urges unity among Albanians ahead of elections

TIRANA, June 19 – Just days ahead of Albania’s general elections, Turkish President Recep Taip Erdogan has given a lengthy interview to an Albanian television station, urging for unity among the country’s politicians and communities and citing risks Albania faces

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Albanians head to polling stations to elect new prime minister

Albanians head to polling stations to elect new prime minister

TIRANA, June 23 – Albania’s voters are heading to polling centers across the country this Sunday to choose their next representatives to parliament and decide who will lead the country’s government for the next four years. While voters are choosing

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Christina Vasak takes over as new French ambassador to Albania

Christina Vasak takes over as new French ambassador to Albania

TIRANA, June 22 – Christina Vasak has taken over as the new French Ambassador to Albania replacing Bernard Fitoussi. Vasak is a career diplomat who recently served at the French embassy in the Netherlands. “Albania has been an EU candidate

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Western Balkans Fund ready to make official launch

Western Balkans Fund ready to make official launch

TIRANA, June 22 – The Western Balkans Fund, the first regional international organization to have its seat in Tirana, is ready to make its official launch after concluding its preparatory stage. “As of 11 May 2017, the ratification procedures have

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Prime minister under fire for asking police officers to campaign

Prime minister under fire for asking police officers to campaign

TIRANA, June 20 – Albania’s third largest party, the Socialist Movement for Integration, has filed a complaint with prosecutors, urging them to investigate Prime Minister Edi Rama over his campaign statement that police officers should help the ruling Socialist Party

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Incidents increase as electoral campaign approaches end

Incidents increase as electoral campaign approaches end

TIRANA, June 21 – The last week of an otherwise calm general election campaign saw an increase in the number of incidents, which included fights among activists and physical attacks on party workers. The Socialist Movement for Integration, the country’s

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Enver Hoxha’s nephew facing 13 years for cocaine trafficking

Enver Hoxha’s nephew facing 13 years for cocaine trafficking

TIRANA, June 20 – Albanian prosecutors are seeking a long prison sentence for Ermal Hoxha, the nephew of the country’s former communist dictator, Enver Hoxha, and eight co-conspirators who prosecutors say were involved in cocaine trafficking. In the trial of

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Divorces, domestic violence cases hit record high

Divorces, domestic violence cases hit record high

TIRANA, June 20 – Divorces hit a historic high in 2016 triggered by an increase in domestic violence cases, according to a report by state statistical institute, INSTAT. A Men and Women report shows divorces rose by 34 percent to

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Economy tops Albanians’ concerns ahead of elections, AIIS survey finds

Economy tops Albanians’ concerns ahead of elections, AIIS survey finds

TIRANA, June 16 – Economy tops Albanians’ concerns ahead of the upcoming June 25 general elections, a nationwide survey conducted by the Albanian Institute for International Studies has found. The survey shows the respondents, three quarters of whom said they

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                    [post_content] => The parliamentary elections that will be held this Sunday, June 25, 2017, are unique in Albania's recent history. They are the most unpredictable and the calmest since the fall of communism. They are also a paradox as elections go. And they are not necessarily the most democratic elections that have ever been held.

These unprecedented circumstances come because all of the three main parties looking to claim victory in the elections are already in the government managing the elections – the Socialist Party of Prime Minister Edi Rama, the Democratic Party led by Lulzim Basha and the Socialist Movement for Integration now under the leadership of Petrit Vasili after its founding chairman, Ilir Meta, officially resigned to take the post of President of the Republic in July.

The Socialist Party and the Socialist Movement for Integration continue their coalition in the government, while on the campaign trail they are in a tough all-out race. In an unprecedented case, having lost the elections of 2013, the main opposition Democratic Party has gained representation in the government shortly before the elections.

Following the agreement between Prime Minister Rama and the opposition leader, Basha, the Socialists handed over some of the most important cabinet portfolios – those of justice, healthcare, education, social affairs as well as the Ministry of Interior, Ministry of Finance and the post of Deputy Prime Minister. All of these are now managed by caretaker technocrats proposed by the opposition.

Unlike the 2013 elections, political parties are running alone, not in coalitions, a move that can bring serious implications for the Socialist Movement for Integration and smaller parties in the race, including newcomers looking to gain on the protest vote – Libra led by Ben Blushi on the left and Sfida led by Gjergj Bojaxhi on the right.

However, these particulars involved and lack of formal coalitions are not the only novelty in the June 25 elections.

First, the campaign has been the calmest ever, and the voting day is likely to be the same way. However, getting here was not easy. Just a little over a month before the elections the country was headed toward a major crisis that had a major destabilization potential. For more than three months, the main opposition Democratic Party had held a nonstop public protest in front of the Prime Minister's Office, demanding the government's resignation and the creation of a caretaker government staffed by technocrats. The opposition accused the government of planning to use crime money from cannabis cultivation and trafficking to buy the elections. The opposition transformed its protest into a forum where citizens were invited to vent their issues with the Socialist-led government.

Regrettably, the political elite in Albania once again demonstrated the lack of will and capacity to resolve disputes domestically, repeating the same political culture of addiction to international mediation. To solve the political crisis in Albania, the European Union and the United States committed to mediate.

The country was very close to the brink of having an election without the opposition's participation, a never-before-seen negative move. The government and the opposition were far from finding a solution, when the European Union, through an open letter to the Albanian people, seemed to give the green light to the government to hold the election without the opposition's participation, a decision that did not seem to have the support of the United States, the other international mediator.

Holding elections without the opposition's participation would have resulted in a parliament dominated by the ruling Socialist Party and its, until recently, ally, the Socialist Movement for Integration – as well as a few satellite parties and powerless anti-system newcomers as opposition. It would not have been viable as a long-term parliament and the Socialist Party leader and Prime Minister Rama admitted it.

Third, the SP and DP, the two parties that have dominated the political scene in Albania during the last quarter of the century, after the establishment of pluralism in 1990, entered into these elections after an agreement between their two leaders, Prime Minister Edi Rama and Democratic Party Chairman Lulzim Basha. Not all the details of this agreement have been made public.

The agreement came when all of those involved in the negotiations had lost hope -- including the international mediators involved in the Albanian political crisis. However, the prime minister and the opposition chief met alone and came up with a political solution to give key ministries to technocrats proposed by the opposition. The main tasks of these caretaker ministers was to make sure the state resources were not used to favor the parties in power since 2013.

At first glance the agreement seems like a grand coalition, but local experts note that it only seems that way. It remains to be seen what will happen after the elections – whether SP and DP will continue to split power after the elections if neither is able to secure a ruling majority on its own – in other words getting 71 seats in a parliament made up of 140 lawmakers.

Fourthly, the SMI is entering these elections outside a leftist coalition and will have the opportunity to test its power in an electoral system that does not favor third and small parties, but also in an environment that is hostile to SMI after the end of the ruling coalition with the SP.

SP, and especially Prime Minister Rama, tried hard to keep the same coalition as four years ago, even by presenting this coalition as strategic and important to the European country's future. However, there have been ongoing tensions between the two ruling parties, and the coalition has often been on the brink of breakup.

After the deal between the two largest parties, SP and DP, the SMI finds itself alone and being blamed for all the ills of the government in which it was a junior partner. It faces charges of creating a state administration that is based on the basis of clientele and nepotism to maximize voter acquisition for the party through giving away jobs, licenses and favors.

The SP and SMI conflict now involves all the top leaders, including Prime Minister Rama and Speaker of Parliament Ilir Meta, who is also the president-elect and is expected to become head of state on July 24.

Fifth, the main opposition Democratic Party and its small satellite parties, which are running candidates inside the list of the DP, are focused primarily on the economic issues, giving proposal on revitalizing the economy and lower unemployment.

On the other hand, the Socialist Party is primarily concerned on “building the state” a rule-of-law platform that urges the voters to have Prime Minister Rama rule alone to be free to implement his program.

Sixth, the opposition Democratic Party enters into this race for the first time without its historic leader, Sali Berisha, who resigned after losing the 2013 general elections. DP is being led by a new leader, Lulzim Basha, who has held several key posts since 2005, including as Minister of Interior and Minister of Foreign Affairs. He then served as Mayor of Tirana for one term. Although it is clear that Berisha continues to be active in the party he led for more than two decades, he is not leading the campaign and as such the results will be a strong test for the new leader. A loss of the election by the opposition would undermine the positions of the new leader, Basha, who was chosen and entrusted with the leadership mostly thanks to Berisha's support.

Seventh, the country is entering the elections after the incumbent parliament approved a major reform of the justice system and how these elections will be held, including the outcome, will determine the implementation of the reform. How the justice reform is implemented and how governance goes after the elections will also set the stage on whether there will be progress in Albania's EU membership bid and the country's stability as a whole.

This analysis has been produced by the Tirana Center for Journalistic Excellence. Visit TCJE.org for more information. 

 
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                    [post_content] => TIRANA, June 19 – Just days ahead of Albania’s general elections, Turkish President Recep Taip Erdogan has given a lengthy interview to an Albanian television station, urging for unity among the country’s politicians and communities and citing risks Albania faces from the outside.

“Albania is a very unique country, housing very different groups, following different religions and cultures, and, in my point of view, Albania has a different respectfulness with the Muslim population and with the Christian population. There is a very rich co-existence. This richness, I hope and pray, shall be sustained in the future by Albania,” Erdogan said. “And there are those who are spending efforts to separate and divide Albania. I hope and pray they will hit a wall, because with these features, with these sensitivities, Albania becomes even a more beautiful country. This richness, this wealth of Albania, should never be touched by anyone. The people and the government in Albania should never allow others touch this wealth.”

President Erdogan also said he wished the best of luck to “dear friend” Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama, but denied Turkey supports or backs any particular party in an interview with Top Channel, one of Albania’s largest television stations.

“Mr. Prime Minister, and my dear friend Edi, right now I would like to wish him the best of luck in his endeavors. The recently elected President, I wish him the best of luck in his future endeavors as well. I personally attach great significance to the solidarity between the Prime Minister and the President.” President Erdogan said. “The forthcoming elections in Albania will mark the beginning of a new era. I believe that the people of Albania will strengthen their own future.”

Noting the new divide between the Rama and Ilir Meta, the president-elect, over the political split between their parties, the Socialist Party and the Socialist Movement for Integration, said he hoped the divisions would be sorted out.

“Such divisions between a President and a Prime Minister will not bring any gains to any country. It would make any country lose a lot of things. I know that in this period the debates will be remedied, and with the new elections, the spirit of solidarity and the spirit of togetherness will bring forth a new kind of strength to the entire Albania. And Albania is standing strongly on its own feet. I know that Albania will take benefit of the future that lies ahead,” President Erdogan added.

He said Turkey would do whatever it can politically, commercially, culturally, military-wise to provide all sorts of support to Albania.

“We are determined to provide all sorts of support to Albania whenever it is needed, because we think Albania is a very important country in the Balkan. It is a source of solidarity, and in terms of preserving stability, I think Albania plays a crucial role. The stability of the Balkans is very important after all,” Erdogan said.

Asked whether it is true that Turkey actively supports particular parties in Albania and the region President Erdogan said that was not true.

“I think this is a very ugly claim. Saying that would not be very pretty. There might be political parties with whom we share same ideologies. In Europe there might be political parties that we see eye to eye with. Many political parties in the Balkan countries are expressing their opinions with their counterparts in other European countries. This happens. Of course, there are political parties willing to benefit from our experiences. There are political parties willing to learn about our political experiences and political opinions. And we would be more than happy to help them intellectually. This is the transmission of an experience which should not disturb anybody,” President Erdogan said.

In economic terms. President Erdogan added that Turkish investments in Albania have reached a very serious level, around 3 billion dollars.

“I am not sure how much of investments have you been receiving from the European member states. And these investments of Turkey will not come to a halt. On the contrary, these investments will be sustained. Especially in Marina investments, there will be some initiatives taken up. In this region, Turkey, Greece and Italy will become preferred trade partners, and they will be taking a leap forward altogether, especially in the field of tourism,” he said.

President Erdogan also reaffirmed his government’s request to Albania to veer away from institutions set up by the network led by Fethullah Gülen, whom Turkey accuses of being behind the failed coup last year.

“I would like to voice a special request for the Albanian people. Please don’t send your students to the schools ran by the Fetulahists. And secondly, my dear friend, Edi Rama, I had a special request for him. I would like to voice the same request, vis-à-vis the President: Please, no longer have confidence in the schools of these Fetulahists. Instead, contact the Maarif Foundation Schools, co-established by the Turkish Ministry of Education. Because the Maarif Schools will not victimize the Albanian youth, and they will be educated in the best fashion possible,” President Erdogan said.

The full interview is available in English here: https://goo.gl/ZcE211

 
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                    [post_content] => TIRANA, June 23 – Albania's voters are heading to polling centers across the country this Sunday to choose their next representatives to parliament and decide who will lead the country's government for the next four years.

While voters are choosing 140 lawmakers, under Albania's opaque closed-list regional proportional system, they are also voting to elect the country's new prime minister as leader of the party that wins the most votes.

The opinion polls and previous elections show the race to win is among the Socialist Party of Prime Minister Edi Rama, the Democratic Party led by Lulzim Basha and the Socialist Movement for Integration now under the leadership of Petrit Vasili after its founding chairman, Ilir Meta, officially resigned to take the post of President of the Republic in July.

Each party is looking to get at least 71 seats in the 140-seat parliament if it hopes to govern alone. If fewer seats are gained, a coalition government with a kingmaker will be needed, as has been the case in the past eight years, with SMI becoming partners first with DP and then with SP.

A grand coalition between SP and DP to sideline SMI and smaller parties, once thought impossible, is now a real possibility, political analysts note, following a recent agreement on a pre-electoral caretaker government and calmer climate between the two parties.

Smaller parties like the PDIU of the Cham community – and newcomers looking to gain on the protest vote – Libra led by Ben Blushi on the left and Sfida led by Gjergj Bojaxhi on the right – could also make it to parliament, even-though the system is set up to penalize small parties and help larger ones by setting up a huge barrier to entry in parliament.

To remedy the situation, the main opposition Democratic Party is having candidates of small satellite parties running in its own list to help them be elected and unify the vote.

On the campaign trail much of the debate has been about economic issues, which according to an opinion poll released this week by the Albanian Institute for International Studies are the most important issues for Albanian voters.

The ruling Socialist Party is promising 220,000 new jobs and saying it will not raise taxes any higher. It has also asked voters to allow it to continue to “build the state” – its rule-of-law platform that promises tough punishments on citizens and businesses to make sure the country's laws are implemented.

The main opposition Democratic Party is promising massive tax cuts and a return to a flat tax. It wants to lower the Value Added Tax from 20 to 15 percent and lower income and business taxes to 9 percent from the current 15 percent.

Economic experts have repeatedly said many of the promises being made on the campaign trail are unrealistic. The Socialist-led government has already failed in its 300,000 new jobs promise in the 2013 elections. It also promised to remove the VAT on basic foods back then, with Prime Minister Rama admitting he could not do it because the cost to the budget would be too high.

Unlike previous elections, the campaign has largely been calm and with only isolated incidents, and the parties have spent less than usual on flags and posters thanks to an agreement between the two largest parties ahead of the elections.

It is the same agreement the produced a semi-caretaker government with key ministerial posts going to technocrats proposed by the opposition with the aim of making sure the elections are free and fair and that no state resources are allowed to influence them in favor of the ruling parties.

Voters will choose representatives proportionally in Albania's 12 counties, with Tirana holding the lion's share of seats in parliament thanks to its higher population. Fier, Elbasan, Durres, Korce, Vlore, Shkoder, Berat, Lezhe, Diber, Gjirokaster and Kukes follow as the regions that will choose the lawmaker lists.

Only Albanian citizens that are over 18 and present in Albania on the day of the vote can participate. With nearly half of Albania's citizens residing in other countries, the turnout by default is likely to be low.

Stay tuned with Tirana Times' online edition, TiranaTimes.com, for updates on the election results.

 

 
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                    [post_content] => [caption id="attachment_132934" align="alignright" width="300"]vasak New French Ambassador to Albania Christina Vasak presents credentials to President Bujar Nishani[/caption]

TIRANA, June 22 - Christina Vasak has taken over as the new French Ambassador to Albania replacing Bernard Fitoussi.

Vasak is a career diplomat who recently served at the French embassy in the Netherlands.

"Albania has been an EU candidate country since 2014 and without deviating from its course, despite its ups and downs, Albania has undertaken a fundamental task to relieve itself from the shackles of the past. For example, we have witnessed the progress made on cooperation and re-establishment of relations with neighboring countries and patiently freeing itself from the harsh heritage of the past still present in the conscience," says the French Ambassador in her message.

Earlier this year, Bernard Fitoussi, who served as French Ambassador to Albania for the past three years was decorated by Albania President Bujar Nishani with the ‘Special civil merit’ order for his contribution to further advancing traditionally friendly relations and supporting Albania's EU integration bid.

French-Albania historical and diplomatic relations date back to 1916 when France established a military protectorate in the region of Korça, southeastern Albania, during World War I.

In 1917, a French school opened in Korça contributing to the training of the Albanian elite in the interwar period.

"Political relations are now mainly fuelled by Albania’s determination to eventually join the European Union, and by our policy to support this process of democratization and stabilization with a view to EU membership. We have consistently supported Albania in its way forward to Europe," says the French Foreign Ministry.

French has been traditionally regularly taught at schools in Albania while each year the country marks the Francophone Spring of events.

While current trade and investment links are quite small, a Franco-Albanian Chamber of Commerce has been operating since 2013.
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                    [post_content] => TIRANA, June 22 - The Western Balkans Fund, the first regional international organization to have its seat in Tirana, is ready to make its official launch after concluding its preparatory stage.

"As of 11 May 2017, the ratification procedures have been concluded by all Western Balkans Fund Contracting Parties (WBF CP). It means that the Agreement Establishing WBF has now entered into force," the international organization established by six EU aspirant Western Balkans countries said in a statement.

"Now, the next step is the official launching of the WBF, its further structural and legal consolidations and starting of its core activities," it added.

The statement comes after the 5th meeting of the Western Balkans Fund Committee of National Coordinators took place at the WBF Secretariat premises in Tirana on June 15-16.

"The experience gained during this period, the comprehensive and positive spirit of regional cooperation shown by the representatives of all contracting parties, in finding the best modalities, answers and solutions to the complex and not easy tasks, represents a solid ground for continuing our joint activities for making WBF, this important, all inclusive and regionally owned initiative, fully operational, a model of a success story," says the Western Balkans Fund.

The Western Balkans Fund, the first regional international organization to have its seat in Tirana, is a cooperation platform between Albania, Serbia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina, that will promote common values and develop regional cooperation between citizens, civil society and institutions of the Western Balkans region, providing a concrete “people-to-people” approach based on the already successful model of the Visegrad Fund, a Bratislava-based international organization founded in 2000 by the governments of the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia.

“We want to give people and especially youth the possibility to know each other better and assist in the reconciliation process,” Gjergj Murra, the Albanian executive director – designate has earlier said.

Established in the framework of the Berlin Process, the creation of the Western Balkans Fund is considered an important political decision and also, a significant positive mark of the new cooperation spirit taking roots in the Balkans and its EU aspirant countries.

Another important organization, the Regional Youth Cooperation Office in the Western Balkans, will also have its seat in Albania. The office aims to further encourage youth cooperation, mutual understanding and exchange of experiences, with a view to strengthening stability, sustainable development and progress in the Western Balkan region.
                    [post_title] => Western Balkans Fund ready to make official launch
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                    [post_date] => 2017-06-21 17:44:16
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                    [post_content] => [caption id="attachment_132916" align="alignright" width="300"]Edi Rama during a campaign rally. (Photo: SP Facebook/Handout) Edi Rama during a campaign rally. (Photo: SP Facebook/Handout)[/caption]

TIRANA, June 20 – Albania’s third largest party, the Socialist Movement for Integration, has filed a complaint with prosecutors, urging them to investigate Prime Minister Edi Rama over his campaign statement that police officers should help the ruling Socialist Party win in this weekend’s general elections.

The complaint cited a rally on June 16 in Kuçova during which Rama called on the police officers to take off their uniform after work and go get more votes to the Socialist Party.

His statement raised eyebrows among many, as police is by law a nonpolitical entity, however. Rama said his statement had been misunderstood, and he apologized if the statement had come out the wrong way.

"It was not my intention at all ... but the mistake remains mine," Prime Minister Rama said, adding he wanted to issue an "apology for the noise created by the call" on police officers.

However, in a letter to the highest authorities in the country and the diplomatic corps, the SMI points out that the statement of the Prime Minister were in violation of the Constitution and key laws and that it might have been a criminal offense to make the statement.

SMI leader Petrit Vasili said the party was pursuing the matter to make all equal under the law, because if a low-level activist had done the same as the prime minister, he or she would have been criminally prosecuted.

Albania’s laws to protect the free and fairness of elections were recently made tougher, including imprisonment to deter vote rigging and the of state resources in the campaign.

The SMI also said it deems it necessary that outgoing President Bujar Nishani call a meeting of the National Security Council to deal with the matter.

The SMI charges against Prime Minister Rama come at a time that tensions between the former allies, SP and SMI, have reached a peak.

In power for eight years with two different partners in government, the SMI is increasingly under attack by the country’s two largest parties, which are trying to squeeze it out and be able able rule alone.

 
                    [post_title] => Prime minister under fire for asking police officers to campaign
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                    [post_date] => 2017-06-21 17:39:53
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                    [post_content] => TIRANA, June 21 – The last week of an otherwise calm general election campaign saw an increase in the number of incidents, which included fights among activists and physical attacks on party workers.

The Socialist Movement for Integration, the country's third largest party, had particularly been affected by the incidents, with its activists facing violence in at least two different cases.

SMI has criticised the police for not doing enough to document the incidents and punish those responsible, a claim the police deny. 

Albania has semi-caretaker government for the duration of the campaign, and Interior Minister Dritan Demiraj, a technocrat proposed by the opposition, called for the sacking of three police chiefs serving in areas where there had been incidents during the campaign.

Minister Demiraj said he is closely co-operating with the prosecutor's office to uncover electoral crimes, and that police have taken all the measures for a more timely election process.

Demiraj said in an interview with VoA that law enforcement officials were committed to fulfill constitutional duties and maintain calmness for the conduct of the election campaign.

He added police cooperation with prosecutors in solving incidents has been very good, and both institutions have invited citizens to denounce any attempt to manipulate the election.

The interior minister said the agreement between Prime Minister Edi Rama and opposition leader Lulzim Basha that led to the creation of the semi-caretaker government has positively influenced the campaign, however, law enforcement have taken all the measures to ensure a normal electoral process.

Central Elections Commission concerned

CEC Chairman Klement Zguri expressed deep concern over the incidents, adding he hoped that they remain isolated cases.

Zguri called on all voters and activists to distance themselves from any violence and any action that is against human rights and freedoms spelled out in the election law.

"Respecting the free will of every citizen is the main standard we have to meet at every stage of the electoral process,” Zguri told the media. “It is very important to achieve the highest electoral standards, as they are the key to accelerating the integration processes towards the European family.”

He added parties and state institutions should report any incidents immediately and should follow the law to the letter.

"I am confident that political leaders of all electoral subjects will intervene energetically to avoid any kind of tension and to work toward increasing trust among Albanians in the electoral process. It is time to prove maturity and seriousness," Zguri said.

The increase in incidents came at the same time as rhetoric become harsher in the last few days of the campaign.

 
                    [post_title] => Incidents increase as electoral campaign approaches end
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                    [post_content] => TIRANA, June 20 - Albanian prosecutors are seeking a long prison sentence for Ermal Hoxha, the nephew of the country’s former communist dictator, Enver Hoxha, and eight co-conspirators who prosecutors say were involved in cocaine trafficking.

In the trial of what has been labeled as the “Xibraka Group” to be held at the Serious Crimes Court in Tirana, the prosecutor has asked for a 13-year prison sentence for Hoxha and 13 to 15 years imprisonment for other members of the group, including two Colombians. In total, 126 years of imprisonment were sought.

Hoxha, 42, and the others were arrested in January 2015 and are accused of creating an organized criminal group that had imported large amounts of cocaine into the country to later be shipped to Western Europe.

A large facility Xibraka in Labinot area of Elbasan County served as a holding and processing center.

The bust, prosecutors said, marked the largest amount of cocaine ever seized in Albania, about 100 kilograms in total. Most of the cocaine, in both cut and concentrate form, was found in the warehouse in Elbasan County, close to Albania’s main East-West highway. In addition, approximately 18 kilos of cocaine and about €340,000 were found in the car of one of the Albanian men arrested.

“This was a well-structured group with international ties ranging from Latin America to the Balkans, and Western Europe as a destination. The group was able to secure the narcotics, which were then processed to extract pure cocaine, which was then marketed in the local and international markets. As part of the processing portion, the organization had hired two Colombians,” a police spokesman, Genti Mullai, said at a press conference after the bust.

Albanian police were first alerted to the drug network by their counterparts in Germany, the country that appears to have been the main destination for the finished product, with raw materials originating from Latin America, arriving in Albania mixed in palm oil used for commercial cooking.

Police were on the trail of the criminal group for several months, before they found enough information through wiretapping to move on the accused criminals, local media reported.

 
                    [post_title] => Enver Hoxha’s nephew facing 13 years for cocaine trafficking
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                    [post_content] => TIRANA, June 20 - Divorces hit a historic high in 2016 triggered by an increase in domestic violence cases, according to a report by state statistical institute, INSTAT.

A Men and Women report shows divorces rose by 34 percent to a historic high of 7,034 in 2016 when domestic violence cases also climbed to 3,700.

Meanwhile, marriages slightly dropped to 22,600 in 2016 following a four-year high of about 25,000 in 2015, preserving their trend for the past 25 years of Albania’s transition when the marriage culture has remained almost unchanged.

"The number of marriages in the past decade has remained unchanged at about 22,000, but divorces have doubled. Ten years ago there were about 3,000 divorces compared to a current 7,000. This has also led to a 2-fold increase in the divorce rate which has increased to 31 divorces per 100 marriages," say INSTAT experts.

Lawyers say it is mostly women who take the initiative to file for divorce nowadays.

"The figures are alarming. Filing for divorce and protection orders with courts has seen a sharp increase. Once it was men who dominated filing for divorce, but now it is women who take the courage and address court to divorce their husbands," says lawyer Vjollca Pustina.

According to her, economic factors dominate divorce filings, but there is also adultery, jealousy and psychological and physical violence causes.

Back in 1990, just before democratic changes swept the country following almost five decades of isolation under communism, Albania had 2,675 divorces and 28,992 marriages with a divorce rate of 9.2 percent.

Sociologists say the hike began in the early 1990s with the economic, social and cultural changes and the mass migration of Albanians as the country transitioned to a multiparty political system and market economy.

"Couples who have one of the partners abroad suffer bigger problems. A partner's physical absence is associated with a number of difficulties for women while distance for a long time triggers the estrangement effect, often leading to divorce,” says Alketa Molla, who has defended her PhD thesis on divorce during Albania's transition.

"The society's opening up has also led to greater women emancipation and awareness for their rights and freedom and the establishment of a divorce culture. Differently from other societies where the divorce culture is seen as equality among marriage partners, in Albania it is seen as women reaction filing for divorce when their rights are violated,” she adds.

Experts say gambling is becoming a rising factor leading to divorce.

"He was really obssessed with sports betting and I thought he was out of his mind. He excused himself he could not find a job and spent all day gambling and watching football matches,” says a divorced 45-year-old teacher as quoted by Alketa Molla in her PhD research.

“He did this with my wage money. He used violence if I didn't hand him my wage. He became violent with the children as well. I couldn't go on like this and I addressed court to file for divorce. My children and I are now free," she adds.

A rise in domestic violence cases is also believed to have led to a higher number of divorces. Police say some 2,200 protection orders were issued on violated women in 2016.

Domestic violence claimed between 20 to 30 lives a year in the past five years and affected thousands, but a network of women empowerment lobbying to provide rehabilitation services to violence perpetrators claims only up to 15 percent of women in Albania report cases to the authorities.

Despite Albania’s legal framework, the problem is with the fact that the victims don’t consider domestic violence as an offence or they are frightened of reporting the incidents because it could trigger shame on their families. Other reasons for the underreporting and failure to complain about violence, include their inability to financially support themselves and their children when they leave or divorce their partners, the women’s network says.

Albania’s population is estimated to have remained almost unchanged at 2.88 million in 2016 with the mean age at 37 years, compared to 30.6 years in 2001 and 26 years in 1990 just before the collapse of the communist regime when Albania boasted one of the world’s youngest populations.

Once the country with the highest fertility rate under communism, Albania saw its average number of children per woman drop to 1.54 in 2016, down from 3 in 1990 just before the transition to a multi-party system and a record 6 in the early 1960s.

Lower fertility rates and massive migration has contributed to the population shrink and ageing.

Albania has about 1.5 million migrants, 1 million of whom living and working in neighbouring Italy and Greece in the past 25 years.
                    [post_title] => Divorces, domestic violence cases hit record high
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                    [post_content] => tab 1TIRANA, June 16 - Economy tops Albanians' concerns ahead of the upcoming June 25 general elections, a nationwide survey conducted by the Albanian Institute for International Studies has found.

The survey shows the respondents, three quarters of whom said they would vote in the upcoming elections, are practical and pragmatic about their concerns with basic needs such employment, poverty, education and health topping the list.

Asked about the biggest problem Albanians currently face, about a third of respondents rated the economic crisis as the top concern, said Alba Çela, the AIIS deputy director introducing the survey findings.

The Albanian economy has been growing between 1 to 3 percent in the past eight years compared to a pre-crisis decade of six percent annually, which experts says brings much-needed welfare for households.

Financially supported by the U.S. embassy's Democracy Commission Small Grants Program, an AIIS team carried out 1,200 face-to-face interviews in February 2017 to measure Albanian democracy and society ahead of the June general elections.

tab 2One out of five respondents said lack of rule of law and corruption were the second and third top issues concerning Albanians. The two long-standing issues are directly related to the justice reform Albania is on the verge of implementing after a unanimous vote in mid-2016 in a bid to overhaul the highly perceived corrupt judiciary, a key issue Albania needs to tackle in order to strengthen rule of law, launch EU accession negotiations and improve the business climate.

When it comes to personal issues, low income, unemployment and poverty were three top three concerns for Albanians, who already have a high migration rate and rank among the top globally for willingness to migrate.

The perceived quality of education and healthcare remains poor, especially for the more sensitive health sector with about two-thirds of surveyed people rating its service quality as ‘low’ and ‘very low.’

When it comes to problems of democracy, Albanians rate political conflict and lack of free and fair elections as the main issues.

tab 3The run up to the general or local elections has always been accompanied by political conflict in the country's past 25 years of transition to democracy while no single election has been rated by international observers as fully free and fair.

Other issues concerning Albanians include the pronounced economic inequality, lack of rotation among the political elite and communist past.

About half of respondents say creating new job opportunities and combating poverty should be the top priorities of the new government out of the June 25 general elections.

About half think women's representation in political parties should increase to 50 percent, up from a current 30 percent target.

Ryan Roberts, the U.S. embassy's Public Affairs Officer in Tirana, said the findings contribute to the substantive discussion and raise awareness about democracy and elections in the country.

AIIS head Albert Rakipi said the survey focused on real issues preoccupying citizens on the verge of elections.

“The project, despite modest targeted key issues facing the country’s democracy and elections to observe the citizens’ expectations without going into details that would politicize it ahead of the elections,” said Rakipi.

With campaigning for the June 25 general election in full swing following a late May deal breaking a three-month political deadlock, all three main running parties, the ruling Socialist Party, the opposition Democratic Party and the third largest Socialist Movement for Integration, have focused their electoral platforms on creating jobs and offering lower taxes.

ais pic

 

 
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            [post_date] => 2017-06-23 10:09:51
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            [post_content] => The parliamentary elections that will be held this Sunday, June 25, 2017, are unique in Albania's recent history. They are the most unpredictable and the calmest since the fall of communism. They are also a paradox as elections go. And they are not necessarily the most democratic elections that have ever been held.

These unprecedented circumstances come because all of the three main parties looking to claim victory in the elections are already in the government managing the elections – the Socialist Party of Prime Minister Edi Rama, the Democratic Party led by Lulzim Basha and the Socialist Movement for Integration now under the leadership of Petrit Vasili after its founding chairman, Ilir Meta, officially resigned to take the post of President of the Republic in July.

The Socialist Party and the Socialist Movement for Integration continue their coalition in the government, while on the campaign trail they are in a tough all-out race. In an unprecedented case, having lost the elections of 2013, the main opposition Democratic Party has gained representation in the government shortly before the elections.

Following the agreement between Prime Minister Rama and the opposition leader, Basha, the Socialists handed over some of the most important cabinet portfolios – those of justice, healthcare, education, social affairs as well as the Ministry of Interior, Ministry of Finance and the post of Deputy Prime Minister. All of these are now managed by caretaker technocrats proposed by the opposition.

Unlike the 2013 elections, political parties are running alone, not in coalitions, a move that can bring serious implications for the Socialist Movement for Integration and smaller parties in the race, including newcomers looking to gain on the protest vote – Libra led by Ben Blushi on the left and Sfida led by Gjergj Bojaxhi on the right.

However, these particulars involved and lack of formal coalitions are not the only novelty in the June 25 elections.

First, the campaign has been the calmest ever, and the voting day is likely to be the same way. However, getting here was not easy. Just a little over a month before the elections the country was headed toward a major crisis that had a major destabilization potential. For more than three months, the main opposition Democratic Party had held a nonstop public protest in front of the Prime Minister's Office, demanding the government's resignation and the creation of a caretaker government staffed by technocrats. The opposition accused the government of planning to use crime money from cannabis cultivation and trafficking to buy the elections. The opposition transformed its protest into a forum where citizens were invited to vent their issues with the Socialist-led government.

Regrettably, the political elite in Albania once again demonstrated the lack of will and capacity to resolve disputes domestically, repeating the same political culture of addiction to international mediation. To solve the political crisis in Albania, the European Union and the United States committed to mediate.

The country was very close to the brink of having an election without the opposition's participation, a never-before-seen negative move. The government and the opposition were far from finding a solution, when the European Union, through an open letter to the Albanian people, seemed to give the green light to the government to hold the election without the opposition's participation, a decision that did not seem to have the support of the United States, the other international mediator.

Holding elections without the opposition's participation would have resulted in a parliament dominated by the ruling Socialist Party and its, until recently, ally, the Socialist Movement for Integration – as well as a few satellite parties and powerless anti-system newcomers as opposition. It would not have been viable as a long-term parliament and the Socialist Party leader and Prime Minister Rama admitted it.

Third, the SP and DP, the two parties that have dominated the political scene in Albania during the last quarter of the century, after the establishment of pluralism in 1990, entered into these elections after an agreement between their two leaders, Prime Minister Edi Rama and Democratic Party Chairman Lulzim Basha. Not all the details of this agreement have been made public.

The agreement came when all of those involved in the negotiations had lost hope -- including the international mediators involved in the Albanian political crisis. However, the prime minister and the opposition chief met alone and came up with a political solution to give key ministries to technocrats proposed by the opposition. The main tasks of these caretaker ministers was to make sure the state resources were not used to favor the parties in power since 2013.

At first glance the agreement seems like a grand coalition, but local experts note that it only seems that way. It remains to be seen what will happen after the elections – whether SP and DP will continue to split power after the elections if neither is able to secure a ruling majority on its own – in other words getting 71 seats in a parliament made up of 140 lawmakers.

Fourthly, the SMI is entering these elections outside a leftist coalition and will have the opportunity to test its power in an electoral system that does not favor third and small parties, but also in an environment that is hostile to SMI after the end of the ruling coalition with the SP.

SP, and especially Prime Minister Rama, tried hard to keep the same coalition as four years ago, even by presenting this coalition as strategic and important to the European country's future. However, there have been ongoing tensions between the two ruling parties, and the coalition has often been on the brink of breakup.

After the deal between the two largest parties, SP and DP, the SMI finds itself alone and being blamed for all the ills of the government in which it was a junior partner. It faces charges of creating a state administration that is based on the basis of clientele and nepotism to maximize voter acquisition for the party through giving away jobs, licenses and favors.

The SP and SMI conflict now involves all the top leaders, including Prime Minister Rama and Speaker of Parliament Ilir Meta, who is also the president-elect and is expected to become head of state on July 24.

Fifth, the main opposition Democratic Party and its small satellite parties, which are running candidates inside the list of the DP, are focused primarily on the economic issues, giving proposal on revitalizing the economy and lower unemployment.

On the other hand, the Socialist Party is primarily concerned on “building the state” a rule-of-law platform that urges the voters to have Prime Minister Rama rule alone to be free to implement his program.

Sixth, the opposition Democratic Party enters into this race for the first time without its historic leader, Sali Berisha, who resigned after losing the 2013 general elections. DP is being led by a new leader, Lulzim Basha, who has held several key posts since 2005, including as Minister of Interior and Minister of Foreign Affairs. He then served as Mayor of Tirana for one term. Although it is clear that Berisha continues to be active in the party he led for more than two decades, he is not leading the campaign and as such the results will be a strong test for the new leader. A loss of the election by the opposition would undermine the positions of the new leader, Basha, who was chosen and entrusted with the leadership mostly thanks to Berisha's support.

Seventh, the country is entering the elections after the incumbent parliament approved a major reform of the justice system and how these elections will be held, including the outcome, will determine the implementation of the reform. How the justice reform is implemented and how governance goes after the elections will also set the stage on whether there will be progress in Albania's EU membership bid and the country's stability as a whole.

This analysis has been produced by the Tirana Center for Journalistic Excellence. Visit TCJE.org for more information. 

 
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