Albania’s local elections largely well administered, but characterized by continued polarization and lack of focus on local issues

15 Maj 2023, 16:23Politics TEMA

Albania’s 14 May local elections were generally well-administered, competitive and held with the participation of the country’s key political forces, but the process was characterized by continued polarization between the two main political parties in the country and deep divisions among the opposition, the international observers said in a statement today. Contestants could campaign freely, but issues of importance for local communities barely featured in the campaigns. Cases of the misuse of public resources at both the national and local levels, allegations of pressure on voters and public sector workers, in particular, and of vote-buying were of concern, the observers said.

The observers said the Central Election Commission (CEC) worked in a transparent and efficient manner, although the frequent replacement of members of lower-level commissions by nominating parties negatively affected those commissions’ stability. The rules for coverage of the campaign by broadcasters strongly favour the main parties, and the frequent use of party-produced content in news programmes undermined comprehensive and objective coverage of the campaign, the statement says.

“While fundamental freedoms were respected and the campaign was competitive, the polarization between the two main political forces in the country, as well as alleged pressure on voters and vote-buying were of concern,” said Ambassador Audrey Glover, head of the election observation mission from the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights. “We wish Albania all success in resolving the issues we have identified and ask the political actors to work on behalf of all citizens to bring the conduct of elections fully in line with OSCE commitments and other standards for democratic elections.”

Election day was generally peaceful but was negatively affected by numerous cases of party interference in the process, widespread group voting and problems with the secrecy of the vote, as well as technical and procedural problems, particularly early in the day. The vote count was assessed positively, overall.

The fundamental freedoms of assembly and expression were respected, overall. The mayoral contests drew greater attention than those to choose local councils, in a campaign where voters were given a distinct choice. The visible but rather low-key campaign revolved around the major parties and their national leaders and included confrontational rhetoric and style, rather than focusing on local candidates and issues, to the detriment of local democracy.

“We welcome the peaceful manner in which the elections were conducted. However, long- standing matters of concern for the Congress include technical and procedural difficulties on Election Day, the low representation of women, both as candidates and in election administration, and a lack of accessibility in polling stations for voters with disabilities” said Stewart Dickson, Head of the delegation from the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe. “In addition, local elections should be a vehicle for local people to decide their priorities on local issues through their votes and those whom they vote for, which unfortunately, as in previous occasions, was not the case in these elections.”

“We were glad to see that the opposition parties decided to participate this time, thus enabling a more democratic process, despite some observations that suggest the lack of a level playing field during the electoral campaign,” said Sven Simon, Head of the delegation from the European Parliament. “Further embracing democratic values and completing the necessary and awaited reforms, according to the recommendations by the international community, will strengthen Albania’s arguments in favour of accession to the EU.”

Although 2020 amendments to the electoral legal framework introduced additional safeguards against the misuse of public resources for campaign purposes, the State Election Commissioner ruled that this provision applies only to parliamentary elections, and there were numerous activities, both by the national government and local administrations, that ran counter to a new rule prohibiting the authorities from providing new benefits in the four months before election day. Often, there was no clear distinction between official and campaign activities.

The elections were generally well managed by the election administration, although some delays in the technical aspects of the process and the nomination of the lower-level commissions were noted. The observers were told there was increased transparency and openness in the CEC’s decision-making.  

While diverse, the media environment is characterized by systemic problems, including the concentration of media ownership and control exerted by intertwined business and political interests, that impact on media freedom and journalistic practice. The rules for election coverage by broadcasters, based on the current party representation in the parliament, provide the main parliamentary parties with a significant advantage. Media monitoring showed that coverage of the campaign focused on national party leaders and the candidates for the mayor of Tirana, with limited attention to issues relevant at the local level.

The electoral legal framework provides an adequate basis for the conduct of democratic elections, including at the local level. While a number of previous ODIHR and Congress recommendations were addressed in 2020, many others are yet to be implemented.

Thirteen of the 17 government ministers and 50 of the 140 members of parliament (35 per cent) are women. The law provides for the 50-per cent gender quota and the criteria for placement on council candidate lists, which was not always respected. In addition, only 15 of the 144 mayoral candidates were women. Although the Electoral Code prescribes a 30-per cent gender quota, women are underrepresented throughout the election administration, particularly in decision-making positions.

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