Why the elections were (not) a missed opportunity

Why the elections were (not) a missed opportunity
Tirana Times - http://tiranatimes.com/

By Albert Rakipi 

Although the local government elections were considered by most observers as democratic and peaceful, international observers still considered them a “missed opportunity for Albania.” This verdict suggests the need to explore the reasons why a relatively peaceful and democratic electoral system is still unable to break the logjam of a political transition that is proving to be one of the most taxing in South Eastern Europe. 

It is our belief that these elections constitute proof that Albanian democracy and institutions are stronger now. After the parliamentary elections of July 2005, these elections constitute the second successful transfer of power from one party to another. This happened despite an extremely polarized atmosphere where both parties considered the elections as highly political. Although the SP controlled a number of municipalities and communes going into the elections, the race was between the center-right “majority” and the left “opposition.” 

Nevertheless, it is extremely important that the transfer of power is occurring in all municipalities and communes despite the political force that previously controlled the local government. Thus, both sides have contributed to the successful overcoming of the second test of a democracy-in-the-making. 

It is particularly important that the second test was passed by a central government controlled by the DP and its allies which are coming to terms with the results of the elections. 

In some political science models, two peaceful transitions of power suffice to consolidate democracy. However, in Albania’s case a number of factors undermine the certainty that the democratic transfer of power will be sustainable, stable, and predictable. These are the very same factors that do not allow the country to reach international standards on elections. 

First, the political will to respect the democratic rules of the game is lacking. This would mean solving the technical problems that have dogged the process such as the absence of an integral voters list, addresses and identity cards. The electoral infrastructure and the electoral code leave plenty of room for manipulation. All of these obstacles can be solved in time if the political parties truly decided to fix them before the next parliamentary elections. If not, we will have a repetition of the old story: electoral reform that does not fix the problem but makes the system more cumbersome and prone to break downs. 

It is easy to forget that the opposition which now demands voters’ lists and identity cards was in power for eight years and refused to make any tangible progress on any of these issues. Thus, although solving the technical problems related to the elections would have positive externalities in strengthening the credibility of state institutions and official identification documents, the country remain stuck in a vicious circle perhaps because it allows political parties room for maneuver at the final countdown. 

But, even if one party did get the political will to solve the issue, political consensus may still be hard to achieve. The difficult and confrontational relationship between the two groups is a burden not only for the electoral system but it also degenerates into violence during the bi-partisan process of elections administration. It is as a result of this confrontational approach that international observers continue to come here in droves to monitor the elections. 

Calling the elections “peaceful”—as one international report did—should not have been a standard at this stage in the transition. It is not a step forward since the country has long made the decision to ensure transfers of power through elections rather than violence. But, the authors of the report are not to be blamed. Although Albania is a post communist state, it exhibits all the characteristics of a post conflict country as well. The elections were not a “missed opportunity” because of events on e-day. Instead, the government and the opposition had already failed during the preparations for electoral reform prior to the elections themselves. The missing consensus of reform which brought about a postponement on the date already decreed by the President almost forced the European Union to send a special representative—the same way it deals with post conflict societies. 

The second factor that suggests the need for a debate on the country’s near future is the result of these elections. On one hand, the government needs to reflect on the loss of these elections so soon after winning the parliamentary ones. The opposition too needs to closely examine the losses on some of its bastions and the immediate impact on coalition dynamics. On the other hand, an analysis of the impact of the elections on the country’s democracy needs to be carried out as well. 

These results bring us to a clear division of power: the DP and its allies control central government while the socialists and their allies control local government. Until now, we have seen a great deal of confrontation between central government and opposition-controlled local government units. How this relationship will proceed from now on will determine much of Albania’s immediate future.