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Comment 28 May 14

June Elections Involve High Stakes for Kosovo

Kosovo’s next government will face huge challenges on the economy and corruption – but it will be stymied from the start, if the country does not stage a clean election first.

Naim Rashiti
Pristina

After the campaign for the general election in Kosovo starts officially on May 28, the actual vote will take place only ten days later, on June 8.

However, the parties have been in campaign mode for weeks if not months already, trying to signal a shift with slogans like “New Mission”, “The Turn”, “The New Direction” and “The Alternative”.

This marks a major change from traditional slogans about status, Serbs and Serbia. Clearly, voters want to hear about policies on employment, agriculture, subsidies and investments. Bill Clinton's maxim rings true: it’s the economy, stupid.

The current government led by the Democratic Party of Kosovo, PDK, has made considerable progress in integrating the Serbian minority, on dialogue with Serbia, on Kosovo’s international recognition and on concluding talks on a stability pact with the EU.

But it has failed to make similar headway in domestic affairs, on the fight against corruption and on the economy.

After six years in power the PDK looks a weakened force, but Prime Minister Hashim Thaci is still strong and popular.

Helped by a feeble opposition, he sets the agenda alone. The opposition has followed his lead on talks with Serbia and on integrating the Serbs of northern Kosovo, for example. Weeks after Thaci launched the “fund for employment”, opposition parties unveiled similarstrategies of their own.

The campaign will focus on the candidates for the post of Prime Minister. The leader of the Democratic League of Kosovo, LDK, Isa Mustafa, one such candidate, has challenged Thaci to a televised debate. The Balkans Group together with 37 other civil society organisations signed a letter urging all the main party leaders to agree to one. Thaci has not yet responded and seems likely to decline. Kosovo’s democracy and its voters can only benefit from more debate, however.

The 2010 general election was the worst in recent history, with 45 per cent of ballot boxes tampered with. The outgoing parliament has been ineffective, failing to pass important laws including on the election of the ombudsperson and on electoral reform. Despite international pressure, election reform has probably not been adopted because Thaci and Mustafa did not wish it.

The November 2013 municipal election had some shortcomings but took place in a positive atmosphere and represented a significant improvement in democratic standards. Will the June 2014 elections show further progress?

A member of the Central Election Commission gives a simple answer: no. The oligarchs that control the party branches will again determine who wins in their territories, he said. The stakes are higher in national than local elections, so the motive for fraud is stronger, he warned.

One LDK parliamentarian told Balkans Group: “I am the party in my area, and I determine who speaks in our gatherings.”

A PDK member said he was asked to pay for votes he wants to get in a town in central Kosovo. A new member of the AKR admitted he had to accept the rules set by village representatives to be able to campaign in the area he controls.

While leaders compete, party strongmen try to control voting in the areas they come from. Fraud also happens within parties.

Current law allows voters to pick one party and five members from its list. In 2010, the strongmen pressured voters on which names to pick and in some areas altered ballots after the boxes were opened.

Local party leaders are appointed by pressure or by connections, and are not chosen in fair party elections. Kosovo’s new parliament urgently needs to pass an electoral reform law, but the parties also need to democratise internally.

Regular members should have a say in choosing mid-level leaders through party elections. The public administration remains heavily politicised and all parties use the civil servants of the institutions they control.

There are some new faces. Prominent members of civil society, businessmen, academics and veterans of international organisations have joined parties. But most candidates represent the old guard. Thaci has struggled to purge unwanted members, promising posts to some, should they agree to be left off the candidates’ list.

With the party rocked by defections and criminal charges, the PDK campaign is centering on Thaci himself, who is seeking a third mandate as Prime Minister. Mustafa has also failed to renovate the LDK leadership and his party has its own problems with corruption. Recently, 10 LDK members working in the Pristina city administration were arrested. Mustafa’s defeat by Shpend Ahmeti of Vetevendosje in the mayoral race continues to sting.

After a disappointing loss in the November elections, Ramush Haradinaj’s Alliance for the Future of Kosovo, AAK, is rapidly improving its campaign. The AAK's “New Direction” campaign focuses on agriculture, the economy, health and the rule of law.  The AAK is fighting for third place in the elections against Vetevendosje, so that it can become the kingmaker in any talks on the formation of the new government.

Vetevendosje is changing, too. Ahmeti’s victory in Pristina has echoed throughout the party whose voters want new faces. Party leader Albin Kurti has given members more space. The AKR of Behgjet Pacolli has also come back, winning two important towns, Gjakova and South Mitrovica, in the November mayoral elections.

Usually reliable polls between March and May put the PDK on 30 per cent, ahead of the LDK’s 26 percent. Vetevendosje leads the AAK by 16 per cent to 11. The AKR hovers between 6 and 7 per cent. Personally, Thaci leads Mustafa by 11 per cent.  

Feeling confident, the PDK has indicated that if it wins, Thaci will invite the LDK into the government. The LDK still refuses a coalition with PDK.  In case the LDK wins, Mustafa prefers a coalition with the AAK and/or Vetevendosje. The LDK hopes to form a coalition with the AAK and Vetevendosje even if the PDK leads in the overall vote.

The June elections will bring another change. For the first time since 2001, Serbs from all over Kosovo are participating. The Belgrade-supported Srpska citizens’ initiative has made peace with the Independent Liberals, SLS, a party they until recently denounced as “Thaçi’s Serbs”.

The Srpska list won nine of the ten Serb-majority municipalities in November and is likely to win most of the ten seats guaranteed in parliament for Serbs. The main parties do not want a coalition that depends on Serbian votes, as the current one does, but bypassing a large Serbian bloc will be hard. The Belgrade-backed group will be an important player in the new government. .

The new government will meantime face difficult issues, which, if they are not resolved, may put the viability of the young state at risk. Improving the economy, generating growth, suppressing corruption and organised crime, building an impartial and effective administration and judiciary, advancing the EU agenda and integrating the Serbian minority are serious challenges.

But the next government will be handicapped from the start unless Kosovo can prove that it can organise a free, fair and clean election - at least as good as November’s local contest.

Naim Rashiti is Kosovo Director, Balkans Policy Research Group, a think tank researching and developing policy recommendations on peacebuilding and statebuilding issues in Southeastern Europe.


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