In what seems to be a scenario that has repeated itself the last few election cycles, Parliament is again working on a bipartisan proposal to reform the electoral system, after Prime Minister Edi Rama and opposition leader Lulzim Basha agreed in June 2017 to implement the recommendations of the OSCE/ODIHR from the 2013, 2015, and 2017 reports.
But this time, the stakes are high. In June 2018, the European Council decided that in order to open accession negotiations in June 2019, not only does the government need to fulfill the five “key conditions,” it is also expected to fully implement all OSCE/ODIHR recommendations before the 2019 local elections.
Both the Dutch and German parliaments will have to sign off on a European Commission report evaluating the progress of the Albanian government, and CDU Bundestag member Thorsten Frei already indicated that “the first accession conference will only take place after the local elections take place based on a new electoral reform that has been approved in a bipartisan manner.”
In other words, the electoral reform is a key element for opening EU accession negotiations next year.
However, already in April 2018, the Albanian Helsinki Committee warned that “there is no information on whether consensus has been reached on any important issue that has been addressed or whether work has begun on writing the draft-amendments to this Code” and that Parliament was running late to timely implement the legal changes before the elections.
Only recently, Parliament extended the mandate of the Parliamentary Commission on Electoral Reform, as no progress has been made since June 2017. So what are the actual reforms that Parliament is expected to pass with bipartisan support?
Let’s review some of the 2017 “priority recommendations” of the OSCE/ODIHR:
- Electoral reform that is “inclusive, timely, and based on sound policy analysis, to address the recommendations contained in this and prior OSCE/ODIHR reports.” Including harmonization of “different election-related laws […] particularly in respect of campaigning, campaign finance, and media.”
- “Robust efforts […] to address the persistent issue of vote-buying, both through a civic awareness campaign and prosecutions, in order to promote confidence in the electoral process. [… A] a public refusal by politicians to accept financial support from individuals with a criminal past would help build public trust in the integrity of the elections.”
- Establishing a “transparent, independent, and inclusive body” to deal with “the abuse of state resources and employment-related pressures on voters.”
- “[N]on-partisan appointment of election commissioners and counting team members.”
- Removal of “[r]estrictions on the suffrage rights of persons with mental disabilities” and “automatic removal of voters over the age of 100.”
- Repeal of defamation as crime.
In other words, the bipartisan electoral reform commission should at least overhaul and harmonize all legislation pertaining to elections; disconnect politicians from organized crime; establish an independent campaign oversight body; depoliticize the Central Election Commission (KQZ) and all other voting commissions; broaden voting rights; change the Penal Code.
Any of these individual recommendations would – under normal circumstances – take months, even if they were to happen in a “normal” political environment, in which opposition and majority would work constructively. Such an environment does currently not exist.
Different from the Justice Reform, with the Electoral Reform the government faces a hard target before June 2019: implementation of the above (and preferably many more) recommendations of the OSCE/ODIHR. The objective here is not some vague idea of “rule of law,” but the concrete negotiation and implementation of legislation that mostly requires bipartisan support.
Again, without this crucial reform, the entire idea of opening accession negotiations is off the table. And chances are that in June 2019, after the EU Elections, with a new European Commission and a new European Parliament, the political landscape will look completely different – and very likely even less favorable to Rama.