Preparations for Albania’s June 23 parliamentary elections are at risk following a crisis in the Central Elections Commission, stemming from a decision by parliament to replace a member of the independent body in charge or running elections.
The parliament vote on April 15 has sparked protests from the political opposition and led to the resignation of two more members of the Central Elections Commission, effectively freezing the work of the body in charge of administering the elections.
The ruling Democratic Party said replacing the CEC member aimed to restore balance to CEC, which is nominally independent, but which in practice is political with the ruling and opposition parties proposing and controlling members based on a formula designed to give governing parties a majority.
However, the Socialist Movement for Integration, which had been part of the governing coalition, switched sides and joined the Socialist Party-led opposition, and its member in the CEC was the one fired and replaced with someone proposed by the Republican Party, a minor party allied with the government.
Opposition representatives said the move was unconstitutional as parliament could not replace a seating CEC member before his mandate runs out, arguing such a move would call into question the fairness of the electoral process.
Fearing constitutional legal challenges, the Democrats backed off their original reasoning of removing SMI representative, Ilirian Muho — to create political balance in the body. They resorted instead to a pretext to achieve the same aim – his record of having been sacked for bad conduct from the country’s president back in 20o3 when Muho served as a regional prosecutor. The Democrats said Muho had lied to parliament when he was originally appointed to CEC, because he had not disclosed his problematic past.
The Democrats, which essentially lead a minority government at this point, did not have the votes to fire the CEC member, but were propped up by four rebel MPs from the opposition. However, their success in changing the CEC member led to a cascade effect with two CEC members resigning and one freezing his activities. These were all nominally opposition representatives to the body.
They say they quit to preserve the integrity of CEC, however it is clear their decision also involves politics and is part of the opposition’s strategy to protest the government’s interference with CEC. Such moves have led a total freezing of the work at CEC at this time.
Deep concern from the international community
The international community has seen the latest developments with deep concern. The EU and U.S. administrations, which have invested heavily in Albania holding proper elections, both had senior officials commenting on the new crisis, in addition to their respective ambassadors’ work on the ground.
EU High Representative Catherine Ashton, who visited Tirana last week, said the European Union sees holding June parliamentary with proper standards will be a crucial test for the smooth functioning of the country’s democratic institutions and progress on the European Union path.
“We expressed publicly our concern over the possible repercussions of a vote in parliament on the people’s confidence in the electoral process,” she said, referring to the CEC member replacement. “It is the responsibility of all politicians to ensure the independence of institutions and to make sure that they enjoy the trust of everyone. There needs to be trust in the process.”
U.S. representatives have also been vocal in their concern, and the U.S. State Department top official for Eurasian affairs, Jonathan Moore, visited Tirana during the thick of the CEC crisis, meeting with all top officials and opposition leaders.
He said in a press conference the U.S. is very worried about the rising tensions in Albanian politics, which started with the parliament’s vote to replace the CEC member.
“In some of our meetings we discussed the latest developments in parliament. As our embassy has made it clear, even though we realize there was some concern about the change in balance after the formation of the [opposition] coalition, we believe that there are strong legal arguments that raise question marks on how parliament voted on April 15,” Moore told journalists in a press conference.
CEC crisis undermines election preparation
The two resignations by Socialist-proposed CEC members have essentially frozen the work at the chief elections management body.
Parliamentary Speaker Jozefina Topalli asked the Socialist Party to send proposals to fill the vacancies, but the Socialists indicated they won’t do so. The Albanian opposition has a notorious history of resorting to boycott of institutions it sees to be unfairly influenced by the government, while the government has a history of never compromising with the opposition, which spells trouble for the future of the electoral process, analysts note.
The Election Code, the legal act that governs how elections are held, mandates that replacement of members of the Central Election Commission be made no later than 48 hours after a seat becomes vacant. And since the two seats are set aside for proposals from the Socialist Party, it is that party that is entitled to propose that the new names.
However, Socialist leader Edi Rama said the issues was not about simply replacing one name with the other – it was about the legitimacy of CEC to work free of political pressure.
From a practical standpoint, the absence of two members does not prevent the everyday functioning of the institution, but it is likely to affect its image and credibility.
Crisis further hurting trust in elections
It is that lack of faith in the electoral process in general and the deep mistrust between the Democratic Party of Prime Minister Sali Berisha and Rama’s Socialist Party that has independent observers and international representation deeply worried about the outcome of the electoral process.
“In our view, Albanians need a process that is based on trust, confidence and standards,” said EU Ambassador to Tirana Ettore Sequi, adding the EU sees it as vital for Albania to hold proper elections as they serve as a test for the functioning of institutions based democratic standards.
The U.S. embassy took a very active role last week, repeatedly appealing to all the political actors in Albania – those in the government and those in the opposition – to act in ways that elevate public confidence in the basic fairness and integrity of the electoral process.
“Doing so will improve the prospects that the outcome of the elections will be accepted by all sides and the public, to the benefit of Albania’s democracy and deeper integration into the Euro-Atlantic community of nations,” the U.S. Embassy said in a statement. “With respect to the composition of the Central Election Commission, it is important to recall that the members of the CEC – who were selected and appointed on the basis of inter-party consensus, in accordance with the Electoral Code – are considered to be apolitical.”