Strasbourg, 23 October 2000

CG/CP (7) 13

Report on the local government elections in Albania

1st and 15 October 2000

Rapporteurs of the CLRAE Delegation : Mr CHENARD (France) and Mr BUCCI (Italy)

Submitted to the Standing Committee
for examination and adoption on 10 November 2000

I. Introduction

Following the invitation by the Albanian Minister of Local Authorities, the CLRAE Bureau at its meeting of 12 September 2000 decided to send a delegation to observe the local elections in Albania, scheduled for 1 and 15 October 2000.

The CLRAE observer group for the first round of the elections was lead by Mr Alain Chénard (France – L), past president of the Congress, and comprised the following members: Mr Moreno Bucci (Italy – L), Ms Ayse Bahar Çebi (Turkey – L), Ms Brith Fäldt (Sweden – L), Mr Tomas Jirsa (Czech Republic – L), Mr Wlodzimierz Karpinski (Poland – L), Ms Riikka Moilanen (Finland – R), Mr Christopher Newbury (United Kingdom – L), Mr Gellért Szabó (Hungary – L) and Mr Dan P. Medrea (Romania – expert). The delegation was accompanied by Mr Jean-Paul Chauvet and Mr György Bergou from the CLRAE Secretariat.

The team for the second round was lead by Mr Bucci and included Mr Jirsa and Mr Newbury, accompanied by Mr Ulrich Bohner, Deputy Head of the Secretariat.

The CLRAE delegation received considerable assistance both during the preparation of the mission and on the spot: Thanks are due to Mr Jørgen Grunnet, Special Representative of the Secretary General in Albania, Mr Mats Lindberg and all the staff at the Council of Europe Tirana Office. The observers wish to thank also the Ministry for Local Authorities and the Central Electoral Commission for their support and co-operation.

Mention should also be made of the excellent co-operation with representatives of OSCE and in particular the ODIHR Election Observation Mission headed by Mr Eugenio Polizzi, who provided logistical support, briefings and consultations throughout the mission.

The Congress delegation had a series of meetings in Tirana on 28-29 September and on 12-13 October, respectively (see programmes in Appendix).

For the first round, the six observer teams were deployed on 30 September as follows:

Mr Chénard / Mr Chauvet Tirana

Mr Bucci / Mr Bergou Kruja – Shijak – Kavaje – Durres

Mr Newbury / Mr Karpinski Berat – Tepelena – Gjirokastra

Ms Moilanen / Mr Jirsa Lac – Lezha – Shkodra

Ms Fäldt / Mr Szabó Lushnja – Fier – Vlora

Ms Çebi / Mr Medrea Elbasan - Prrenjas - Pogradec – Korça

For the second round, the the two teams were deployed on 14 October: Mr Bucci and Mr Bohner went to Himara in the District of Vlora, where a runoff was held between the Human Rights Party and the Socialist Party. Mr Jirsa and Mr Newbury travelled to Korça where a runoff was held between the Democratic Party and the Socialist Party.

The CLRAE teams operated in close co-operation with the OSCE/ODIHR observers.

Following both rounds of the elections, OSCE/ODIHR organised a debriefing session in which representatives of the CLRAE delegation took part and presented their observation findings. A press release was prepared jointly by the two organisations and a joint press conference was held on both occasions.

Part of this report is based on information supplied by OSCE/ODIHR, which had a long term presence and a large number of observers during these elections (some 240 in the first round and 40 in the second round).

II. Background to the elections

The elections were once again marked by the deep polarisation of Albanian politics, stemming from past elections and the aftermath of the 1997 crisis. The political scene in Albania remains dominated by the two main political rivals, the governing Socialist Party (SP) and the opposition Democratic Party (DP). During the past decade, the fortunes of both parties have shifted dramatically from one election to another. The last full local elections were in October 1996 and resulted in a sweeping victory for the DP, which, as a result, has dominated local government until recently with 80 per cent control over city and district councils. The elections were observed by the Congress and the Parliamentary Assembly (see Recommendation 28 (1997) on the state of local and regional democracy in Albania.)

The October 2000 elections thus marked the first major test of popular support for the ruling Socialist-led coalition since it came to power following the violent uprising in 1997. (The June 1998 by-elections, equally observed by the CLRAE, concerned only 7 municipalities and 9 communes.)

A law adopted on 31 July abolished the districts as self-government units; at the same time it created eleven mini-municipalities (districts) within Tirana. The new regions, which are to replace the former districts as the middle-tier of government, will only have indirectly elected assemblies. The elections, therefore, consisted in voting for municipal and commune councils (including the mini-municipalities of Tirana) through a proportional system and for mayors through direct election (with a possible second round only for the latter category). In addition, the local government elections were viewed by both main political parties as a test for next year's parliamentary elections.

Although the CLRAE had no observer present in Albania during the election campaign, information available in the media or provided by OSCE and the Council of Europe office gave a good idea of the preparations. Meetings with representatives of the main political parties and the Central Election Commission have also revealed the main problems that occurred during the run-up to these elections.

The conduct of the elections and the willingness of the main parties to abide by their outcome is seen as a measure of the level of political maturity Albania has reached, and a valuable indicator that the country is progressing in the right direction.

A Parliamentary Assembly resolution at the end of June insisted that "… the forthcoming local and general elections in Albania, respectively foreseen for October 2000 and June 2001, will be held in accordance with the new Electoral Law, that they will be fair and free and that their results will be accepted by all political parties... It is in the light of these elections and of further legislative and administrative measures taken in the framework of the monitoring procedure, that the Parliamentary Assembly will be able to decide whether Albania can be considered as having honoured its obligations and commitments as a member state of the Council of Europe." (Resolution 1219 (2000))

II.1 The new electoral law and the composition of the CEC

Albania's electoral process has traditionally been bedevilled by the same handicaps encountered in most other institutional areas: namely, inadequate legislation, capacity deficiencies, politicisation of the process, mistrust in the correct running of democratic institutions and lack of overall political support.

Since the 1997 crisis, Albanian authorities undertook significant measures to reform State structures and the electoral framework, including a new Constitution (adopted in 1998 following a referendum boycotted by the DP), an electoral code (8 May 2000), and a computerised national voters register (summer 2000). In addition, an ambitious program of decentralisation was started with the intention of giving representatives of municipalities and communes enhanced powers. In general, these new instruments made substantial progress towards improving State structures and meeting international standards for democratic elections.

However, as in the past, this year's electoral process has been marred by problems. The OSCE has endeavoured to accommodate criticisms of the electoral code through a working group open to all parties, to deal with technical and legislative issues of voter registration and the enactment of the electoral code. Since the beginning of March 2000, the working group has met on an almost daily basis, discussing issues of a legal or technical nature raised by participants. As a result, an amended code had been prepared and passed in Parliament in May, incorporating the changes agreed to by the parties, together with the proposals of international experts, including those of the Council of Europe and the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES). The code has indeed reflected many of the suggestions made by the Congress in Recommendation 28. In the view of the international experts, this text should provide Albania with an internationally acceptable legal basis for the holding of free and fair elections.

The Albanian constitution provides for an independent, non-political Central Electoral Commission (CEC), excluding the nomination or participation of members on a party political basis. The constitution entitles the President of the Republic to appoint two CEC members, while the High Council of Justice, chaired by the President, can elect three commission members. The other two are elected by parliament.

In reality, the parliamentary majority introduced some transitional provisions in the code late in the process, which are not consistent with the main provisions and recommendations of international experts. In particular, concerns were raised about the composition and chairmanship of local electoral commissions that compromised their political balance.

Dissent has been revolving constantly around the composition of the commissions. As a result of the transitional provisions and a continuing opposition to the new Constitution, including the CEC provisions, the DP rejected the Code in its entirety and refused to take part in its adoption in Parliament even though it had participated in most of the multiparty roundtable discussions before a last-minute withdrawal. They accused President Meidani of turning the CEC into a politically partisan body in order to assist the Socialist Party in rigging the elections. The present code, the DP argued, created a legal foundation for manipulating the elections and, in addition, five CEC members were nominated in a one-sided manner, before the code had been even approved and with disregard for the criteria laid down in the code. This has resulted in a CEC that does not enjoy the trust of all political forces participating in the elections.

Throughout the election run-up both political sides have used these reforms as electoral campaign issues, and the legal foundation and main institutions of the State have been highly disputed by the DP. The composition of election commissions at both central and local levels has remained in the centre of debates between the two main parties. Partly as a result, commissions were established late, compounding the challenge faced by all commissions in administering these complex elections under a compressed time frame.

II.2 Election administration and the composition of local electoral commissions

The early appointment of six out of seven CEC members before the Code was adopted and the SP affiliation of some members created considerable controversy. Later in the process, two members resigned and three new CEC members were selected, thus the controversy somewhat diminished. However, the DP claimed that not all members had been regularly invited to meetings. This accusation was rejected by Mr Fotaq Nano, Chairman of the CEC, who said in the meeting with the CLRAE delegation that the commission had adopted a more balanced and flexible attitude in the later stages of the run-up period.

The CEC performance was hampered by difficulties, ranging from initial under-staffing, inexperience and lack of losgistics to the persistent deficiency of rules of procedure. Occasionally, the CEC adopted decisions in informal meetings and unnecessarily delayed their publication. Political parties, candidates and voters were poorly informed of these decisions, especially in the countryside. Such practices had a negative impact on the transparency and uniformity of election administration. Local commissions in particular lacked clear guidelines and training.

The composition of local commissions was based on party affiliation. The most controversial transitional provisions of the law resulted in securing the majority of seats on all local commissions to the representatives of the governing coalition, in accordance with the results of the last general elections. To enhance confidence in the process, the CEC instructed the Chairs of the Local Government Election Commissions (LGECs - the middle-level commissions for these elections) to reflect a 50/50 nationwide ratio between the two main parties. The CEC only recommended a similar arrangement for the appointment of Voting Centre Commission (VCC - the third-level commission) Chairs. As a result, most VCCs were established late and the Chairs were not uniformly appointed in accordance with the CEC recommendation. Election commissions relied heavily on the State administrative structures for logistical support. This interaction was not sufficiently regulated to ensure transparency and prompted allegations of undue influence.

While multiparty commissions enhanced transparency, partisan commission members at times used their positions on LGECs and VCCs to obstruct the election administration. These shortcomings of the election administration resulted in procedural gaps for candidate registration among others, adversely impacting in particular smaller parties. In a number of cases, LGECs did not submit the relevant documentation to the CEC, which seriously affected a limited number of candidates and parties. Complaints were handled inefficiently by the CEC.

II.3 Voters register

The first national computerised voter register was initially hailed by the main parties as a major achievement. However, after publication, the preliminary voter lists became highly controversial. A considerable number of errors and the exclusion of unaccountable records from the preliminary voter lists were used by the DP as evidence of political manipulation. In his meeting with the CLRAE delegation, Mr Berisha claimed that six hundred thousand voters, mostly DP sympathisers were intentionally left out of the lists.

In response, the CEC announced that the names of all unaccountable records included in the database will be entered in the final voter lists and issued instructions to that effect, creating two registers: one for verified voters, and another for unaccounted records. Thus, all citizens on either list were eligible to vote, provided they had proper indentification documents. Moreover, the CEC instructed VCCs to be flexible over the identification of voters. The CEC response was effective in reducing the possible disenfranchisement of voters and averted a crisis on election day. Even so, the CLRAE observers have met with people not registered in either of the two lists in almost all polling stations visited.

II.4 The municipal division of Tirana

On 31 July, Parliament approved a law that proposed dividing Tirana into eleven districts (“mini-municipalities”), whilst maintaining Tirana municipality as a whole. The opposition swiftly accused the Socialists of attempting to create election districts to give themselves an electoral majority in a large number of districts while concentrating the voting strength of the opposition in as few districts as possible.

However, Minister of Local Authorities Bashkim Fino, who proposed the reforms in the first place, claimed they were intended to improve overall management of the city, whose population has risen sharply from 290,000 in 1990 to an estimated 700,000 by 2000. During his meeting with the CLRAE delegation, Mr Fino said Tirana's division from a centralised city hall into eleven municipalities would give more autonomy to local government. He added that the move was in line with the European Charter of Local Self-Government.

Whilst these arguments seem reasonable, there was too little time left to implement these changes before the elections. Nevertheless, on election day voters in Tirana were required to cast four ballots, one each for the mayor of Tirana, the municipal council of Tirana, the district mayor and the district council.

III. The campaign

A total of 2,232 candidates registered for the mayoral contests and there were 2,360 local council lists for the 385 constituencies. These figures are further evidence of a competitive election.

The election campaign was mostly conducted in a calm atmosphere, though the tone clearly escalated towards election day. There were a few isolated campaign-related incidents. In contrast to previous campaigns, the police generally reacted appropriately, despite allegations of isolated harassment incidents. Generally, candidates were able to campaign in all parts of the country, even in areas that were traditionally considered as strongholds for the "other side".

Despite calls from international organisations to avoid extreme confrontation, leaders of the country's two main parties have carried out the debate with characteristically bitter polemics. There was a sharp difference, however, in the campaign rhetoric of local candidates and national party leaders. While local party leaders had a pragmatic approach and generally respected each other, national party leaders remained prone to inflammatory language. Although agreements between party leaders were reached on campaign ethics in a number of municipalities, political polarisation at the central level prevailed.

The campaign of smaller parties was overshadowed by the two main political forces. The allocation of public funding also favoured the two main political parties.

III.1 The media

The media played a major role in the pre-election campaign both at national and local levels. For the first time, a broad spectrum of media outlets offered voters a wide range of information. However, few media could be considered independent. In some cases, a pronounced editorial policy and support for one party or another have been clearly visible.

In accordance with the Electoral Code, the Steering Council of the public broadcaster TVSH provided free air time to parties and candidates running in the elections. The air time was assigned through a lottery, broadcast on TV, to ensure the transparency of the process.

The National Council for Radio and Television (NCRT), an independent agency entrusted with monitoring and supervising the media, functioned in a transparent and balanced manner, and provided an effective mechanism for addressing media-related complaints. The NCRT interpreted the legal framework for the media as obligating public and private TV networks to provide impartial coverage during the campaign.

While public TV improved its performance in terms of fair coverage during the course of the campaign, the private media devoted most of their time to the two main political parties. In general, in the highly polarised political climate, small parties received little attention by the media. Some 20 televised debates between candidates took place throughout the country, with half on public television in which more parties participated, and half on private television limited to the main parties.

The media often magnified the inflammatory tone used by the main national leaders during the political campaign. In particular, this was the case for the party press in which the quality of information provided was poor and often distorted.

III.2 Voter education

As the delegation learned during the meeting with the CEC Chair, a voter education campaign had been launched rather late, only some days before the elections. Although TV spots explaining the voting procedure and the marking of ballots for both mayors and council (party) lists were useful, they proved to be insufficient, and the observers encountered many cases of voters unable to cast their ballots without assistance, leading in many cases to a large number of invalid votes.

IV. Election day, vote count and first round results

Voting and counting was carried out in a calm and orderly manner in the majority of municipalities and communes and no major security incidents were reported. After delays in opening centres, VCCs generally administered voting procedures correctly and in a co-operative spirit. There were voters in almost all polling stations visited who could not find their names on the voters lists, some possessing a certificate from the door-to-door enumeration procedure (“blue coupons”) or even a voting card. Their number, however, did not seem significant enough to influence the outcome.

Generally, when the observers asked about people coming to vote whose names were not on the lists, the answer pointed towards a total near 1% of the electorate. In many cases they were directed to other VCCs, since the computerisation of the lists had often resulted in inscription in a neighbouring voting district. Not only finding the right polling station was difficult, but also finding one's name on the lists, which were presented by streets and not in alphabetical order, making them less transparent to the observers, too.

In general, police conduct was appropriate and in accordance with the law.

The following general irregularities were observed on election day:

    - In Durres and Tirana, the distribution of election material was disorderly and some polling centres did not receive a sufficient quantity of ballots in time.
    - Elections were not held in one constituency as a result of the LGEC failing to distribute voting material.
    - Around 20% of centres observed ignored the thumb-inking procedure, though the very small number of voters turning up from the additional lists indicated a low possibility of double voting.
    - “Family voting” was noted in the majority of centres observed, contradicting the principle of secret vote. VCC Chairs were often reluctant to intervene on this issue, referring to “cultural traditions”.

In addition, the CLRAE observers noted the following problems:

    - Many VCCs were lacking sufficient preparation and training for election procedures, resulting in delays for opening.
    - Provisions relating to casting of the ballots, the counting procedure as well as the specific duties of party representatives and domestic observers were not always respected.
    - Some monitor teams noted the intrusive behaviour of domestic observers and certain VCC members (debating procedures and/or influencing voters).
    - The voter screens provided by the CEC proved unsuitable for the purpose of ensuring secret voting in many cases: Proper booths should be used instead.
    - Very often the polling station was to small for the number of voters in the area, resulting in an undue congestion and chaotic scenes inside, or queuing in front of the polling station.
    - Ballot papers were not adequate for the purpose: The names of candidates and parties were printed in too small letters, without sufficient space between the lines and not indicating party symbols. This necessitated assistance for many elderly and illiterate voters, particularly in rural areas, which had an effect on the secrecy of the poll.
    - In some cases party posters have not been removed from the vicinity of the polling station.
    - Although voters not on the lists were generally turned away by the VCCs (as required by the CEC instructions) in some rural areas they were added on a handwritten list and allowed to vote.
    - VCCs have generally not kept a list of those turned away as no such instructions had been received, although such a list would have been useful to amend the national voters register for next year's parliamentary elections.
    - There were cases of mixing up the ballots in the two ballot boxes (for mayors and councils), even if the ballot papers were easily identifiable by their colours.
    - The number of ballot papers in each box was not always checked against the number of voters noted by the VCC before the actual counting began.
    - Some polling stations were not closed, people being allowed to come and go freely throughout the count.
    - In many polling stations the ballots were counted once only, the votes for each party being counted by the representatives present of the party concerned.
    - Too many ballots were considered invalid (in some polling stations up to 10 %), even in cases where the voter's intention had been clearly expressed. Although the new law is more flexible on this issue than the old one, many VCCs seemed to be unaware, and consequently ignored the changes.

In spite of these problems, the CLRAE observers agreed that the first round of the elections marked significant progress towards meeting the standards of democratic elections (see press release nr. 1 in the Appendix). None of the monitors have encountered trouble, violence, or intimidation in the areas observed.

IV.1 The Himara case

The CLRAE teams have not covered the Dropull and Himara areas during the first round, where serious problems have been reported by the Greek-speaking minority, including “psychological violence” against voters and representatives of the Union of Human Rights Party.

According to the results published by the CEC, the Union for Human Rights Party lost the elections in the Ksamil commune, in one of the two communes in Dropull, and was facing run-offs in the other Dropull commune and in the Himara coastal municipality. (It is a municipality composed of seven villages, four of which are Albanian-speaking and the rest Greek-speaking. In general terms, most of the Albanian politicians, except the Human Rights Party, do not recognise the existence of a Greek-speaking minority in Himara, whereas most Greek officials want to defend such a minority.)

After this disastrous election performance, the Greek minority Omonia organisation has charged the government with “vote rigging”. Greek and foreign observers have reported cases of irregularities and cheating in some areas. The Albanian authorities have also come under pressure from Greece to call new elections in the recognised Greek minority areas and in Himara.

The CLRAE, whilst unable to take a position on these reports on the basis of the first round monitoring, decided to send a team to observe the second round in Himara (see below.)

IV.2 First round results

In the first round, municipal and commune Councils as well as Mayors were elected. Whilst the election to Councils were arranged on a proportional basis, it was necessary for the election of the Mayor to achieve the absolute majority in the first round. Where this had not been achieved, i.e. in 28 municipalities, 127 communes and 10 administrative units of Tirana, new elections were scheduled for 15 October. Furthermore, new first-round elections were scheduled in 7 communes where the voting had not been held or not properly been held on 1 October.

First round results for mayoral contests gave an outright victory to Socialist Party (SP) candidates in 140 constituencies and to Democratic Party (DP) candidates in 67 constituencies; the Human Rights Party candidate won in five communes and the Albanian Legality Movement in one.

Based on information provided by Local Government Election Commissions (LGECs), the Central Election Commission announced the final results of the first round on 7 October (see CEC decision nr. 40 in the Appendix). However, this CEC decision number 40 was incomplete as it did not contain the final number of voters registered, the overall turnout, nor the detailed results from the proportional ballot for municipal or commune councils. Moreover, in Tirana, the CEC accepted incomplete protocols from the city LGEC, which did not bear the required signatures and stamps, and failed to record the number of invalid ballots. This gave rise to unconfirmed rumours in the local press of one hundred thousand invalid votes in the capital alone.

Later it became clear, however, that the number of invalid votes was much lower than that claimed in the press. The figures provided unofficially to the CLRAE delegation by the CEC Chairman on 13 October indicated that for the whole country, in the first round, there were about 90,700 invalid votes, which is still too high, and only between 8 and 10,000 invalid votes for the whole of the Tirana municipalities.

IV.3 Election complaints procedure

After the first round of elections, political parties filed a large number of complaints with the election commissions and the courts. Unfortunately, the election complaints procedure did not provide them with effective means of redress.

The provisions of the new Electoral Code on complaints are insufficient and the CEC and the High Court failed to establish comprehensive rules of procedure as foreseen in the Code. For instance the legal criteria for recounts are too stringent and were implemented selectively.

On 7 October, the CEC decided, without providing a legal rationale, to reject the vast majority of complaints related to election day. Moreover, the CEC decision was made available only on 11 October when the deadline for appealing to the High Court could be considered as expired. For no clear reason, other complaints were referred by the CEC to local courts. At local level, LGECs dismissed cases hastily and, in some cases, gave no official reply to complaints received, or simply refused to investigate evident discrepancies. District and appeals courts were also reluctant, with few exceptions, to examine the substance of the complaints addressed to them.

The inadequate appeals procedure particularly penalised the Republican Party, which complained to the Congress delegation above all that some of its duly registered candidates did not appear on the ballots on election day. Despite appealing to various instances, the party was unable to obtain redress with the commissions or the courts.

In Durres, the local DP candidate complained that, in four cases, the LGEC tabulated results did not match the figures of their official protocols. The tabulated results were not endorsed by the DP member of the LGEC and, in two cases, they also appeared out of scale compared to other voting centres. The discrepancy was large enough to require a run-off in Durres, but the LGEC and the CEC dismissed the complaint without adequate rationale. The DP chose, however, not to seek redress in court.

V. Election environment before the second round

The general and positive evaluation of the first round was marred by disappointment of many observers concerning the functioning of the Central Electoral Commission in-between the two rounds, particularly on the issues mentioned in the Press Release: The CEC did not take appropriate steps to remedy the shortcomings observed on 1 October. It did not provide lower-level election commissions with additional training and information on how to deal with inaccuracies in the voter lists, invalid ballot papers and election complaints. The CEC also failed to set a deadline for candidate withdrawal prior to the second round which created confusion on the eve of the election, when a number of DP candidates resigned. The CEC decided to ignore these withdrawals and to proceed with the elections as planned.

Equally, the mission was very much disappointed by the fact that although preliminary results had been published in order to justify the run-offs for the second round, it had not been possible to obtain consolidated detailed results from the first round until now. Such results had indeed been forwarded to the delegation by the Chairman of the Central Electoral Commission, Mr Fotaq Nano, but have later been recalled by that Commission.

Furthermore, the second round has run into difficulties following a boycott appeal launched by Mr Berisha and the national leaders of the Democratic Party. As a protest against the alleged manipulations of the election process, the DP leadership threatened not to participate in the second round unless the CEC was changed, the voter lists updated and the election postponed. Both the CEC and the Government rejected these conditions.

The boycott appeal was not shared by all leaders of the DP. Nevertheless, it seemed to work in a number of places including the Tirana districts and the Municipality of Korça, where the DP did not engage itself in the campaign, which was thus one-sided. In other places, however, the Democratic Party candidates continued the campaign and DP members participated in the Local Electoral Commissions.

The second round was further overshadowed by polarisation in the small municipality of Himara, which had been the subject of serious shortcomings in the first round. The tension has been aggravated following interference by many officials in Tirana, but also by Greek parliamentarians and members of Government. Despite their bitter rivalry, the Socialists and Democrats have joined forces here to defeat a candidate from the Human Rights Party.

The end of the campaign at local and national level was marred by nationalistic rhetoric, pitting the Albanian against the Greek community, and reported at length in the press even on election day, in an environment of increased tension with the neighbouring country. There were reports of Albanian measures hampering traffic with Greece, like stopping busses on the border for various administrative reasons and organising military manoeuvres in the Ionian Sea, which stopped the ferries from Korfu to Himara and to Sarranda. Police presence was highly visible in Sarranda, as was the presence of a large number of Greek parliamentarians.

Although this question of the minority is certainly an important issue, it is somehow strange to see how this issue overshadowed the whole second round: Himara is a small municipality with only 8,615 voters inscribed on the voters lists, many of which do not regularly reside in Himara but work in Greece.

As during the first round, a broad spectrum of media reported on the elections. Overall, the time given to candidates and the campaign was limited, as the media preferred to concentrate on broader political issues such as the threat of a DP boycott and the situation in Himara. For its part, the public television broadcaster, TVSH, gave overwhelming coverage to the SP, reflecting the unilateral character of the campaign; the tone of this information however, was overall balanced.

On 9 October, the National Council for Radio and Television issued a statement calling for professional media coverage of the second round. Moreover, the NCRT asked the CEC to fine a private television station, ATN1, for breaking the campaign silence on 30 September.

V.1 Election day and vote count in the second round

On election day, voting and counting procedures were overall carried out in a calm and orderly manner in most constituencies. Some irregularities were noted again, including late opening of polling stations and poor respect of procedures such as the inking of voters or the rules for counting.

Another general issue of concern for the Congress delegation was the frequently observed “family voting” which consists of wife and husband or father and children going together into the voting booth and filling in the ballots jointly. This certainly is contrary to the idea of secrecy of vote and it furthermore hampers the individual voting right of many women and young people.

When asked about this, the voting centre committees frequently do not react because they feel it is a cultural tradition or they indicate that many of the wives or young people do not know how to read or write. The latter idea does not seem to be very credible and it should at any rate be noted in the minutes of the Voting Centre Commissions which is not the case. It would therefore be of particular importance to educate both VCCs and voters on this particular issue.

The resignation of DP commissions members who followed Mr Berisha's boycott appeal deprived the election of an essential safeguard and element of transparency, and, as a result, election commissions at times did not reach the legal quorum.

In Himara, the situation was marked by some serious irregularities ranging from intimidation of commissions members, to one case of violence in which a ballot box was destroyed, to verified evidence of fraud in at least three voting centres.

Congress observers confirmed that there had been cases when HRP representatives with valid accreditation had been refused to enter or forced out of voting centres, and they also met cases of forged signatures and ballot stuffing in several polling stations. A more detailed account of the second round of elections in Himara can be found in the Appendix.

The Albanian authorities should ensure that these irregularities are fully investigated in accordance with the rule of law.

Following the second round, Albania's ruling party accused Greece of meddling in the local elections by encouraging voters in Himara to vote for candidates defending the rights of the Greek minority. The SP said the Greek action amounted to a violation of Albanian national sovereignty.

VI. Conclusions

The generally positive evaluation of the first round was quickly overshadowed by the poor performance of the Central Electoral Commission between the two rounds: After the first round the handling of complaints by the election commissions and the courts was inadequate and did not provide an effective means of redress. A number of valid complaints were dismissed without explanation. The Central Election Commission's announcement of the final results was slow and incomplete, and the CEC did not take action to remedy some of the shortcomings observed on 1 October.

General elections have been called in Albania for June 2001. It is therefore of highest importance to prevent similar shortcomings from happening again next year because they could be detrimental to the credibility of the parliamentary elections.

This year's local elections showed the need for further improvement in order to meet Albania's commitments as a member state of the Council of Europe. Following this observation mission, the CLRAE observers wish to make the following recommendations to the Albanian Government:

1. Improve the preparation and presentation of voters lists:

It is to be noted that the lists have, for the first time, been computerised with the help of international organisations. However, they were not presented in alphabetical order, which made their consultation rather difficult, even for Albanians used to that system.

The computerised list still seems to suffer from deficiencies. A first step should be to include all those voters that have been this time on the B lists and that have actually been voting onto the A list and to produce only one voters list.

Furthermore, many claims have been made that the voters lists were incomplete. It would therefore be important to check the present voters list against lists that have been handed over, in particular by the Democratic Party, of voters that were not registered. This is necessary to dismiss allegations that voters might have been omitted from the lists because they had not taken part in the referendum on the Constitution held in 1998 (as suggested by the DP).

2. Devise a mechanism to enable voters missing from the electoral lists to vote:

In a country with high mobility and poor civil registers it is probably impossible to have a “watertight” list, even when records are updated on a regular basis. To address this problem, it seems necessary to set up a legal mechanism (e.g. voter registration on election day by district courts on the basis of well-defined proof of identity) to minimise the number of disenfranchised voters.

3. Improve the publication of results

Although the Central Electoral Commission published some incomplete results one week after the first round, indicating in particular which party had won in which municipality or commune and where run-offs had to be organised, the full results were not yet published two weeks after the first round. It should also be recalled that results should be made public at the polling stations themselves and by local government electoral commissions in each municipality or commune.

4. Improve the handling of complaints so as to provide an effective means of redress

This is an area where serious deficiencies have been observed following the first round of the elections. The CEC failed to address inaccuracies in the voter lists, invalid ballots and election complaints. A number of valid complaints were dismissed without any explanation. The appeals system should be improved to clarify which electoral commission is competent for dealing with complaints, the time frame in which these complaints must be dealt with and which courts are then competent to rule on them. It appeared that some of the complaints had not been properly addressed or answered in due time.

5. Review the composition and chairmanship of the Central Electoral Commission so as to depoliticise this body as much as possible

The Constitution requires an independent, non-partisan CEC, which does not appear to be the case with the current Commission. It seems that the present legislation permits the CEC to be largely controlled by the Government, whereas democratic principles would normally lead to a situation where opposition parties are represented to a sufficiently high extent within the CEC, to make sure that its actions could not be considered as being biased by anyone.

6. Make sure that lower level election commissions are composed and chaired in such a way that they enjoy the trust of all political forces participating in the elections:

The political balance has not been maintained in LGECs and VCCs during these elections, resulting in many problems throughout the electoral process. This situation should be remedied, inter alia by reconsidering the controversial transitional provisions of the law.

7. Step up training for members of electoral commissions at all levels on their rights and duties, so as to ensure a proper handling of the elections and to limit inaccuracies or error due to ignorance or misinterpretation of the law:

A number of irregularities have been observed concerning both the voting procedure and the vote count. In particular, more flexibility should be required to avoid ballots being declared invalid despite the fact that the voters' choice is clear. A new law was published on 8 May 2000 which had altered quite a number of matters including the question of invalid votes, where more respect was requested for the recognition of the voters' will. This aspect of the new law was largely ignored in polling station committees and therefore only seldom applied.

8. Improve the presentation of ballot papers and citizens' education about voting procedures:

This seems necessary in the light of problems encountered in almost all polling stations: family voting, elderly and illiterate persons unable to vote without assistance, high number of invalid votes.

9. Detract from the extreme polarisation and inflammatory language of the main political forces at national level, which has an undue influence on the electoral process.

The CLRAE observers regret that the politics of power and personalities, rather than of policies, still mark the political scene in Albania. Until the political classes accept the conventions of normal, inter-party behaviour found in other Western-style democracies, there is a danger that the effectiveness of international legislative and institution building assistance will again be wasted.

As far as the question of the boycott of these elections is concerned, it should be made clear that in a democratic country, boycotting the elections is not normally a good practice. It would therefore be an improvement if the political parties could try to find common ground, to avoid boycott threats or actual boycotts of elections in the future. This will need confidence building measures between the major political parties competing in Albania.

10. Improve the chances of smaller parties by providing preferential funding and more media time for their campaign.

Small parties were clearly penalised by the current system of allocating campaign funds and media time during these elections. It would be a great step forward if the smaller political parties could put forward more initiatives and accept greater responsibilities, thereby also reducing the antagonism of the two major political forces in Albania.

11. Put a stop to nationalistic rhetoric in the election campaign

All those involved in politics should avoid nationalistic hate speech based on ethnic grounds. Likewise, the outside world and in particular neighbouring countries should avoid to fuel ethnic conflicts, which have led to wars and bloodshed in other places in the Balkans recently.

12. Ensure free access for all foreign observers and for voters living outside the country

It is equally important, however, to ensure that parliamentarians from any country can observe the elections freely, and that the free access of voters living outside Albania to the voting centres where they are registered is guaranteed and not hampered. Of course, foreigners, whether or not accredited observers, must respect national laws and rules relating to the elections. This concerns in particular proper accreditation when visiting polling stations and abstaining from campaigning in such elections.

13. Introduce confidence building measures between the Albanian majority and the minority groups, whether recognised, as in some areas, or only self-proclaimed, as in others.

The Himara incident, where the SP and the DP formed an unlikely coalition against the HRP clearly demonstrated the dangers of nationalism and ethnic conflicts. The Congress observers noted that there is a group of Greek speakers in Himara, a place that is not recognised by Albania as officially having a Greek minority. However, it was not for the CLRAE observers to look into the size or the history of such minority. The Congress nevertheless appeals to the Albanian authorities to make sure that full respect is granted to all minorities living in Albania, whether they are living in officially recognised areas or not.

The Albanian Government should make sure that the Framework Convention on the Protection of National Minorities is properly applied to all minorities existing in the country. It is equally hoped that Albania will sign and ratify the European Charter on Regional or Minority Languages.
 

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As far as local democracy in Albania is concerned, these elections could mark a new starting point. It should be recalled, however, that municipalities have already proved their ability to work efficiently, even during the difficult period of 1996/1997 and the Kosovo refugee crisis of 1998/1999. Today, there is a new chance to develop decentralisation and competences of local government, through building up their financial assets and improving training.

Regarding this latter point, the Congress recalls its proposal to establish a local government training centre in Albania, for which it has still not been possible to find adequate finance.
 
Local government is also called upon to improve basic infrastructure, protection of the environment and economic development of municipalities and communes throughout Albania. Central government should recognise this and encourage the further development of local self-government. This should be done by giving equal chances to all municipalities and communes, regardless of whether the mayors or councils belong to the government coalition or the opposition. This by itself would be a confidence building measure for the respect of cross-party activities all over Albania.

Until this happens, there is a danger that an unhealthy climate of increasing apathy towards the whole democratic process will prevail. Albanians seem disgusted with politics, weary of the continuously tense political situation in the country stemming from the bitter disputes and infighting between the main political forces.

Stability in Albania is important to the success of international community efforts in Kosovo and in the Stability Pact zone. The lesson of the last three years is that pluralist democracy in Albania is still fragile and under development, and the need for international attention and support is undiminished.



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