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With the election date fast approaching, doubts remain whether the poll will meet international standards and represent a step forward in Albania’s long and tumultuous transition to democracy.
For the first time since Albania emerged from the brutal Stalinist regime of former dictator Enver Hoxha in 1991, its political parties are heading to a poll without first reforming the electoral code.
Although the OSCE report card for the contested June 2009 parliamentary elections left a laundry list of 31 recommendations, a reform of electoral code was made impossible by the tense political climate that has marked Albania ever since the poll.
Ever since democratic elections were introduced in Albania, the country has reformed its electoral code after each poll to reflect the numerous recommendation set out by the OSCE.
Although it’s not a given that a reform of the electoral code guarantees elections with internationally recognized standards, experts warn that the lack of political will to amend the code will most likely spell problems.
Ilirjan Celibashi, former head of Albania’s Central Electoral Commission, CEC, says that the failure to pass the reform before the poll could lead the losing camp to contest the results, or at least adopt a critical stance toward them.
In every election monitored by the OSCE since 1992, Albania has failed to meet internationally recognised standards. Although improvements have been made, the elections have always been contested, and even the OSCE itself, in its role as arbiter, has come under fire occasionally.
Generally, the party that loses the elections contests their legitimacy and in some cases boycotts parliament, poisoning the political climate. The tense political climate that often precedes and follows the polling is believed to have frustrated Albanians’ trust in the electoral process and in democratic institutions.
The 2000 Local Elections
According to an OSCE report, the October 25, 2000 local poll was one of the most peaceful the country has held since 1991.
The elections took place in a relatively peaceful atmosphere, with only a few isolated incidents observed during the campaign and on election day, the OSCE found.
Noting that the political scene in the country was polarized at the time, the OSCE wrote that the most serious incident during the poll was registered in the southern municipality of Himara, where the use of nationalistic rhetoric created tensions with the Greek ethnic minority, which escalated into a row between Albania and Greece itself.
In the first round of voting, the Socialist Party, which was in power at the state level at that time, won 28 cities and 110 rural municipalities, while the Democratic Party won 58 rural municipalities. In the second round, the Socialists won control of 114 municipalities, while the Democrats came to power in 21.
The 2003 local elections
The OSCE called Albania's October 12, 2003 local elections a missed chance for the country, underlining that the progress made to meet standards was much smaller than expected.
The monitors observed that although progress was made in campaigning, media coverage, the treatment of disputes and elections administration, the process was drawn-out and punctuated by contestations, particularly in the municipality of Tirana. According to the report, the local electoral commissions came to a standstill due to the polarized stance of Albania’s two largest parties, the Socialists, still in power in the central government, and the Democrats.
The 2003 poll was characterised by mistakes in ballot counting, falsified ballots, invalid ballots, and the like.
Confusion reined as to the validity of the ballots in 40 per cent of voting stations. Roughly 10 per cent of the results of the ballot counting centres observed were falsified, while in 19 per cent of the centres there were more ballots than registered voters in the ballot boxes.
According to the final results of the elections, the Socialist Party won 34.64 per cent of the vote and the Democratic Party 32.42 per cent. The Socialist Party won 185 municipalities, the coalition headed by the Democratic Party took 142 municipalities, the Union for Human Rights 11 and the Social Democrats won 8.
The 2007 local elections
The February 18, 2007 local polls were again criticised by the OSCE for only partially meeting internationally recognised election standards. According to the OSCE report, although the conditions for a competitive race were guaranteed, the behavior of the political parties remained less than satisfactory.
According to the election monitors, the electoral process was ‘bad’ or ‘very bad’ in 10 per cent of the polling stations, while 34 per cent of the voters were turned away because they could not find their name in the list at their polling station. The vote counting process was ‘bad’ or ‘very bad’ in 24 per cent of the cases observed.
According to the official results published by the Central Electoral Commission, in the direct vote for mayors the Socialist Party candidates won 43.74 per cent of the vote, while the Democratic Party 47.86 per cent. In the vote for city council members the Socialists won 23.17 per cent of the vote, followed by the Democrats with 20,6 per cent and the Socialist Movement for Integration with 9.19 per cent.
Although tfraughthe ruling Democratic Party won a majority of municipalities, it lost all major cities and towns to the Socialists, apart from Shkodra and Lezha. Control of the largest population centres is usually the main measure of success in Albania’s local elections.
This article was made possible through the support of the National Endowment for Democracy.
After two decades in politics, divided between the president’s and premier’s offices, Berisha is already Albania’s longest serving leader since the collapse of the Communist regime.
Now seeking a fourth term as Tirana’s mayor, the Socialist leader is hoping that a strong showing in the May local elections will hasten the political demise of his archrival, Sali Berisha.
The controversial ex-minister, who has strong ties to the Berisha family, is bidding to take over the capital - but even if his gambit fails, it’s unlikely to ruin his political career.
On May 8, 3,186,569 Albanians 18-year or older will have the chance to cast their ballot in the local elections, choosing the new mayors and head of communes in 384 municipalities.