Albanian elections, the case for red lines - ESI in Budapest - ESI junior fellows

8 May 2013

Dear friends,

In a few weeks, on 23 June 2013, Albanians will go to the polls. They will vote in the 8th parliamentary elections since 1990.

Most previous Albanian polls have been marked by controversy. Many have seen irregularities. Election results have been challenged. Will these elections be any different?

Sali Berisha and Edi Rama Albanian elections

Sali Berisha and Edi Rama – Albanian elections

In search of standards – and clarity

There are many worrying precedents. 1991. 1996. 2001. 2009.

The 2009 elections electrified Albania. In the end some 10,000 votes and 3 seats in parliament separated the two largest parties, Sali Berisha's Democratic Party and Edi Rama's Socialist Party. The mayoral election in Tirana in 2011, which Edi Rama lost, was decided by an even closer margin: 81 votes.

Critics of the 2009 elections could point to the final report of the Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR). ODIHR, Europe's most experienced election monitors, wrote that the vote count in Albania was "assessed as bad or very bad in 22 of the 66 ballot counting centers" (page 3). However, the same report noted elsewhere that there "was no evidence of irregular counting or manipulation of results" (page 4).

The Democratic Party claimed victory. The Socialist Party cried foul. When its demands were rejected it decided to boycott the new parliament. The country was paralyzed. There was a hunger strike. The political polarization deepened. In the end Albania lost many years.

Assessing elections is difficult. Albanian institutions are weak, and elections close. Even small irregularities might have a major impact. International election monitors are aware that their assessments have consequences. If they disapprove of elections they can trigger massive protests (Ukraine 2004). If they approve of elections they reduce the political ammunition for any challenge (Ukraine 2010). There is an understandable incentive to take refuge in ambiguous language. But this, too, can backfire.

In 2009 the final report of ODIHR summed up its assessment as follows:

"…while meeting most OSCE commitments, these elections did not fully realize Albania's potential to adhere to the highest standards for democratic elections" (page 1)

Which raises the question: did any country in the Balkans, or indeed elsewhere in Europe, ever "fully" adhere to these "highest standards"? Is meeting "most" OSCE standards really good enough for Albanian voters?

In 2009 Albania submitted its application for EU accession. In 2010 the European Commission rejected taking this further, and denied Albania official candidate status. Until today Albania has not been recognized as an official EU candidate, unlike Montenegro, Serbia and Macedonia.

EU institutions have repeatedly pointed to the "successful conduct" of the 2013 elections as crucial. In April this year Catherine Ashton warned that it was essential that Albanian elections will be "in line with international and European standards." Which raises the question: what are these standards? What can outsiders do to encourage all leaders to respect the rules they have themselves established?


Besa Shahini at US Congressional Hearing (May 2013)

Besa Shahini at US Congressional Hearing (May 2013)

The case for red lines

In January this year ESI, the Central European University School of Public Policy and the Open Sociey Foundation organized a workshop in Budapest on "Election Observation and its enemies." Two issues we discussed are particularly relevant to Albania today:

  • The 'red line' issue: Would it be useful and is it possible to formulate 'red lines', which, if crossed, would automatically qualify an election as being unacceptable? When does an election not meet international standards?
  • Clarity of communication: Have observers been too timid to take a stance in contested elections in the way they formulate their conclusions? Could clear language help prevent post-election polarization? 

This week ESI published a new discussion paper on Albania where we outline the case for red lines to be defined in advance. We note that there has always been a risk that the Albanian parliamentary elections on 23 June 2013 will fall short of international standards. This would precipitate a major political crisis in Albania. To counter this risk the international community must take a strong and uncompromising stand on the democratic principles that must be observed. And we propose:

"The key message from all international observers, and in particular from the European Union, must be that all Albanian institutions must rigorously respect the laws they themselves have adapted. There are certain red lines that must not be crossed … Spelling out these red lines in advance makes it less likely that they will be transgressed: 

a)      Members of the election administration cannot be removed for reasons unspecified in the Election Code.

b)      Counting and adjudication of complaints and appeals must be done through strict observation of Election Code procedures.

This week ESI senior analyst Besa Shahini made the same case during a Congressional hearing in Washington DC. Besa told US congressmen that the international community needed to take a strong stance and oppose the recent political dismissal of a member of the Central Election Committee, which has caused a major crisis even before the first ballot has been cast. She explained:

"The EU should state without ambiguity that unless the CEC is reconstituted before the official election campaign starts on 23 May 2013 in line with the Election Code, and unless it is then able to conduct its functions professionally and impartially until the end of the election process, the EU will not consider these election conducted in line with European and international standards."


ESI in Budapest

Building on our cooperation with the Central European University, ESI is also participating in a number of events in Budapest this week.

One is a debate on intervention in the Balkans and possible lessons (, moderated by the president of CEU, John Shatuck.

The second is a screening of the most recent ESI Croatia film, Twilight of heroes. This film as already been screening in Berlin, London, Istanbul, Zagreb, Belgrade, Graz, and Pristina.


Michael Lenihan Victoria Kupsch Ben Judah

Current and former ESI fellows: Michael Lenihan, Victoria Kupsch, Ben Judah

ESI fellows: looking for exceptional people

There is also a third ESI event in Budapest this week: Thinking of making a career as a policy analyst? Learn about the ESI experience and potential career opportunities.

Here we will talk about the ESI story and experience. We will talk about our capacity building efforts, from the Balkans to the Caucasus to, most recently, Ukraine. And we will discuss how to be successful as a policy analyst..

If you are young and interested, or know people who might be interested, in cooperating with ESI please check out our website information on ESI Junior Fellows.

Many best regards

Gerald Knaus