Elections in Albania: Dealing with shortcomings
Earlier this year, a team of researchers from the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at the Princeton University came to Albania to look into the problems the electoral system faces ahead of Albania’s general elections. They interviewed members of electoral management bodies, political parties, government officials, journalists, civil society groups and international organizations. Below are some of their findings. This is only part of the report, for the full version and information on the authors, please view the complete report online at: https://goo.gl/VrG9Kn.
The shortcomings in the Albanian electoral and political processes are quite salient. According to some of the interlocutors the research team met with, the focus on judicial reforms pushed by the European Union (EU) resulted in electoral reforms taking a backseat. As a result, the vulnerabilities in the electoral process that affected Albanian elections in 2013 and 2015 can be expected to emerge again next year. These vulnerabilities can be broadly summarized into the following categories: electoral process vulnerabilities; political process vulnerabilities; issues related to women and youth participation; and civil society, media, and political culture issues.
Electoral Process Vulnerabilities
Electoral malpractice: Interviews with a range of stakeholders in Albania indicated that there is a widespread perception of electoral malpractice. The alleged malpractice that was described included both vote buying and voter intimidation. In the case of the former, interlocutors described practices ranging from one-off exchanges of votes for money or food, to longer-term patronage relationships. In the case of the latter, they described practices such as forced confiscation of voter IDs in the days before an election, though the research team was unable to verify such reports. However, their prevalence indicates at the very least distrust in the integrity of the Albanian electoral process. Lack of options for absentee voting: Since the fall of the Communist regime, a large percentage of the Albanian population has migrated to other countries in search of economic opportunities. Under current regulations, those citizens are not allowed to vote if they are not physically present in the country on election day. This severely limits the inclusiveness of the electoral process, and while different actors have been outspoken about this issue, no comprehensive solution to the problem has been discussed in Parliament.
Electoral Code designed to advantage major political parties: The current Albanian electoral framework is built on a foundation of deep mistrust between the two most prominent parties, and as a result, it includes an intricate set of checks between these two parties. At the same time, these two parties have a “frenemy” relationship, by which they protect their mutual status as the two main players of the party system. This ambivalent dynamic makes it extremely difficult—if not impossible—for new political parties to build up significant power. The politicization of the electoral commissions, both at the national and regional levels, as well as of the process for the counting of the votes, are constructed in such a way as to protect the bipartisan character of the system, at the same time that both parties mistrust each other. For instance, officers at Commissions of Electoral Administration Zones (CEAZ) are appointed by the two main parties exclusively, but mistrust among them is so high that it is often the case that each party may change its own officers even one day before elections if they think they have been bribed by the other party. The exclusion of other parties in the CEAZ effectively stifles democratic development in the country, as new parties which might otherwise have the potential 5 to gather widespread support have trouble even gaining an initial foothold. Lack of institutional capacity: While efforts have been made to increase the technical capacity of the CEC, it is still under-resourced. On the other hand, at the local level, political parties often truncate any professionalization and training efforts in fear of co-optation of electoral officials by their opponents. The result of these two forces is elections run by loyal party supporters, and overseen by a CEC with limited capacity to implement the requirements to achieve free and fair elections conducted by international standards and norms.
Political Process Vulnerabilities
Lack of issue-driven political competition: Albania’s political system is markedly non ideological. There are no real issue-driven politics, and hence, the quality of the political debate is low, and according to some interlocutors, electoral competition has become a race to buy more votes and to increase long-term loyalties. The parties adapt to their role as government and opposition, changing their policy positions depending on the role they currently play. For example, one of the major parties might heavily promote certain legislation while in power, only to vehemently oppose nearly identical legislation once they are in the opposition. This is the case of the waste management legislation, which was proposed by the Democratic Party when it was in power before 2013, with the intention of allowing the importation of waste from other countries into Albania, and was vehemently opposed by the Socialist Party. Now, in 2016, the roles are reversed: nearly-identical legislation is opposed by the Democratic Party and supported by the Socialist coalition. In sum, the mechanics of the party system, while not tarnished by ethnic or religious conflicts, are those of a dysfunctional system, disconnected from its citizens. Weak internal party democracy emphasized by closed lists: As mentioned earlier, Albania’s closed-list electoral system concentrates most of the decision-making power in the party leadership, thereby promoting a highly sycophantic environment. While some parties have internal regulations to elect their candidates, the mechanisms through which the final lists are formed is not completely clear. Political party leadership knows to expect different levels of success in different electoral zones, based on the zone’s population (and therefore, number of allocated seats in parliament), as well as on its history of support for one party or another. Based on this information, parties form their lists strategically. The problem in this case is that party leaders have excessive discretionary power to use this strategic information to block or promote internal opponents or loyal party members. Hence, they can decide to position certain party candidates higher or lower on the list for each zone, effectively ensuring that they are either near-guaranteed seats, or token candidates only.
Issues Related to Women and Youth
Women’s participation: Some individuals interviewed for the report indicated that particularly in rural areas of Albania, women tend to have less representation in Albanian politics. For example, a woman might be included on a party’s candidate list for a certain rural electoral zone, giving the impression of relative gender parity, and yet listed low enough on the list that it will be difficult-to-impossible for her to win a seat in Parliament. Family voting, by which all members of a family are induced to vote in certain way by the male head of the family, is also an issue in rural areas. According to recent studies undertaken by UN Women Albania, pressure by the head of the family is not exercised directly at the polling station. The practice occurs much more frequently at home, with lower-ranked family members (often women) ordered to vote in a certain way by their male head of household.
Youth’s participation: The major political parties do have youth wings, some of which seem very enthusiastic. However, there is some concern that because these youth are being trained for politics within a corrupt system, the next crop of leaders may not be able to break free from the mold set by the current generation in power. In this regard, youth wings are seen more as an extension of the political operation of the party rather than a true source of new political leadership.
Civil Society, Media and Political Culture Issues
Lack of an independent, strong civil society: While some independent organizations can be found, a large number of NGOs are allied with or controlled by the party in government through public funding allocations. These organizations may become unofficial mouthpieces of the party in power, instead of independent scrutinizers of their government programs. When NGOs are truly independent, they actively engage in electoral observation or efforts to promote party finance reform. However, their members can face the costs of not being loyal to a party, in terms of blocking of economic opportunities or denial of funding for their organizations. Due to general mistrust, such independent organizations may also be accused of allying themselves with political interests even when they are not—and their credibility may suffer as a result. This, combined with the lack of issue-driven politics, creates an environment in which it is hard to create mass mobilization in the name of the public good or to demand political change.
Lack of independent media: While there are many media outlets in radio, TV, the Internet, and the printed press, many of them represent specific political and/or economic interests. Media is very often (though not always) either captured by political interests, or an instrument of economic interests to influence politicians. The lack of a strong independent media sector limits the potential to address the reform issues that the Albanian electoral system needs to be improved. Disenchantment with democracy/political culture: All of the previous issues have resulted in a serious lack of democratic political culture. People in Albania regard politics with cynicism and disenchantment. The politicization of economic opportunities, the polarized political climate, the electoral malpractice and the lack of responsiveness of public institutions have increased mistrust, cynicism and hopelessness about the political system and prospects for change.
Role of the International Community
The international community has played a relevant role in Albanian politics since the postCommunist era. The role of the international community as donors, mediators and catalysts of public administration reform in Albanian politics has been key. As most institutions struggle to find consensus and often succumb to violations by powerful political parties, the international community has become the primary source of legitimacy in Albanian politics. Although the role of the international community seems to have declined comparatively since the last two elections, they continue to remain a major source of influence in the political arena, leading some critics to argue that there is a visible lack of ‘local ownership’ among Albanian political and civil society actors. The EU has been a major influence in Albania since 1991, after the collapse of the Communist regime. In this regard, the offer of EU membership extended to Albania and other Balkans countries in 2000 increased the role of the EU and opened up a range of new instruments to influence policy and politics in Albania. The EU partnerships adopted yearly since 2004 have set concrete priority targets that include administrative, judicial and economic reforms. Albania’s integration into the EU is contingent on the fulfillment of these targets.
Albania gained the status of an official candidate to the EU in 2014. There is widespread support among political parties for EU accession. However, important reforms have been impeded and delayed due to polarization and disagreements between the two major parties. According to critics, in light of the stagnant reform process, pro-European Union statements by those in power are likely just lip service. The international community also supports Albania in electoral reforms, election implementation, training and capacity building of election officers and international stakeholder coordination. The role of international actors has now shifted from active election observation to supporting domestic observer groups, local NGOs and institutions. For example, currently the OSCE/ODIHR conducts a technical review of elections and organizes consultations among stakeholders of the voting process. The Council of Europe and OSCE together organize training sessions for members of the Central Election Commission on electoral administration. The international actors also provide support to raise voter awareness and organize voter education campaigns. For example, focus group discussions are organized by United Nations Development Programme for voter education, focusing on gender and elections, family voting, pressures for sanctions on fraud and other issues.
Support the CEC in creating a pool of well-trained election officers – International organizations should continue to assist the CEC in conducting training and capacity building sessions for election commissioners. Capacity building of law enforcement officers in areas like electoral dispute resolution and investigation techniques for financial irregularities and technical training of counting teams (CT) and voting center commissions (VCC) on software and hardware usage must be included. Additionally, election officers must be sensitized on gender dynamics, particularly issues faced by women during elections. A recurring challenge during elections is the frequent replacement of officers at VCCs and CTs due to requests by political parties on charges of bribery. This results in untrained officers being assigned election duties one day before the elections. Creating a pool of well-trained officers would ensure that last-minute transfers do not seriously affect implementation of elections.
Encourage coalitions of issue-driven parties and build their capacity – Both international and domestic actors must push for electoral and political reforms that allow new issue-driven political coalitions to form and establish themselves. Programs aiming at fostering younger parties and party leaders and building their political management skills must be promoted. It is crucial to empower newer issue-driven parties because political stagnation due to few alternatives is an impediment to democratic development in Albania.
Improve transparency in internal party processes – The international community must assist political parties in the design and implementation of methods to promote inclusion of party members in decision making and deliberation within the party structure. Internal functioning of political parties including candidate selection rules, internal elections for leadership positions and women’s representation in the party leadership must be objective and transparent. Best practices from other countries should be shared to promote a democratic culture within political parties.
Stricter enforcement of media standards by empowering media regulatory bodies – International observer groups must emphasize a fair and transparent election process of members of the AMA. Strict separation between editorial content and political advertising must be explicitly stated. Additionally, quality checks on the content of online media outlets must be ensured and a regulatory body monitoring online media standards must be instituted.
Promote independent funding of CSOs, NGOs, media houses – International aid agencies must assist with fundraising strategies in Albania in order to encourage independently funded NGOs and media outlets. The government should be encouraged to offer tax rebates and other incentives to the private sector to encourage support for CSOs. A robust domestic private sector industry and a shift from excessive reliance on international organizations is important for the sustainable development of CSOs.