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feature 07 Jun 17

Albanian Campaigning Laws Spark Political Rights Fears

A new Albanian taskforce has been set up to ensure state resources and staff are not abused during elections, but some fear political freedoms are at risk.

Fatjona Mejdini
BIRN
Tirana
The leader of the opposition, Lulzim Basha (left) and PM Edi Rama. Photo: LSA

Mirela, not her real name, has been a teacher in a high school in Tirana for 22 years.

She says campaigning ahead of this year’s general election has been markedly different from those in years gone by. This time round, she says she has not been obliged to demonstrate support for ruling parties.

"We are kind of relaxed this year, nobody is pressuring us to vote for the party in power or go and attend their rallies," she told BIRN.

Around 63,000 primary and secondary school teachers in Albania are, just like Mirela, set to benefit from increased protection from political pressure ahead of the June 25 election, as a new taskforce has been established to prevent the abuse of state resources and staff.

For the first time, the activity of state employees - including teachers, health personnel, police, military, secret service and central public administration workers – is being thoroughly monitored by working groups appointed by the taskforce.

Candidate MPs will also be subject to the same scrutiny, as will directors of public institutions and agencies, some of whom stand accused of using their influence to pressure employees into serving the needs of their parties in the past.

Every move public sector employees make within their regular eight-hour working day is monitored, including which pictures they post on social networks.

The measures are a result of a deal reached on May 18 between Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama and the leader of the opposition Democratic Party, Lulzim Basha, on monitoring the use of public resources – including staff.

Political stalemate

The deal ended a three-month stalemate during which opposition parties – led by the Democrats – boycotted parliament and refused to take part in the forthcoming election.

The aim is to ensure free and fair elections and that public sector employees are not pressured into voting or attending rallies for particular parties out of fear they may face repercussions, including even losing their jobs.

The taskforce is led by ‘technical’ Vice-Prime Minister Ledina Mandija – appointed by the Democratic Party. There are a number of supporting ministers and agency heads, including current cabinet members and some ‘technical’ ministers from opposition parties.

Post-holders will monitor a range of government departments and agencies, including the interior, health, education, welfare and youth, finance and justice departments.

The creation of the taskforce was approved by the Council of Ministers on June 2, which also set down details of restrictions that apply to public administration employees and institutions when it comes to election campaigning.

Just a few days after the taskforce was officially set up, dozens of officials have been removed from their positions or referred to the state prosecution service by Mandija, accused of abusing their positions to support political parties.

Democratic Party leader Basha, during an appearance on Monday on the Opinion TV programme, praised the work of the taskforce and its technical ministers.

"Their mandate is functioning. There are 25 high and middle-ranking officials that have been, up until now, dismissed or referred to the prosecution [service] for illegally impacting the election campaign," he said.

However, some representatives of political parties have expressed frustration over the dismissal of high officials after they were accused of violating the new laws.

LSI party members dismissed

The Socialist Movement for Integration, LSI, has shared power with Rama’s Socialist Party for the past four years. It has strongly condemned cases where their supporters have been dismissed or referred to the prosecution service, noting that the majority were LSI party members.

The LSI chairman, Petrit Vasili, published a letter on Monday criticising the new election campaign laws as both unfairly enforced and implemented without discussion with LSI cabinet members.

"This decision is not in accordance with the legislation that regulates elections in Albania and human freedoms and rights," read the letter.

Skender Minxhozi, editor-in-chief of the Java News portal, told BIRN that while many state employees, including Mirela the school teacher, might be relieved that they should not be subject to political pressure, there were some serious potential downsides to the new laws and the taskforce.

He believes the decisions of the taskforce would be considered questionable by many and open to debate.

"It is really important to have very careful decision-making, after seeing every proof. The situation really becomes complex with people not allowed to campaign within the official [working] hours but able to do so after work," he said.

In addition, Minxhozi believes the creation of the taskforce could unnecessarily deter state employees from exercising their political rights and supporting parties – even within the current laws.

He is also concerned that the laws and the taskforce were hastily agreed as a concession to the opposition, simply to ensure the election went ahead.

"If we want to regulate activities during the election campaign we have to do this with precise [and well-considered] legislation, and not a taskforce that was established just to end the long political stalemate," he said.

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