Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) Election Observation Mission (EOM) Final Report of the Local Elections 30 June 2019 has been published, highlighting a number of significant issues and irregularities.
Issues of mainstream media acting as platforms to promote the Socialist Party, voter intimidation, and the widespread occurrence of political pressure on government employees were just some of the concerns raised. ODIHR interlocutors also observed a lack of impartiality in the Central Election Commission and expressed a lack of trust in all levels of the commissions.
The EOM also reported a lack of public confidence in the legitimacy of the elections, a climate of uncertainty, and confusion over the disagreement between the ruling Socialist Party and the power of the Constitutional Court. In addition to this, they observed that “the opposition’s calls on the electorate to boycott the elections, the political bias of municipal authorities and unbalanced composition of the election administration all negatively affected the public confidence in the electoral process”.
They also stated that due to a low number of contestants and many uncontested races, the essential choice presented to citizens was whether to participate or not, not which political party to vote for.
Taking place “against a background of a political and institutional crisis,” the ODIHR said that the frameworks were in place for democratic elections but that it required impartiality and “genuine political will” for this to happen.
They noted that most of their previous recommendations had not been addressed let alone implemented.
The ODIHR observed that few women hold leadership roles within political parties and those that do, were not featured prominently in the campaign calling coverage “very limited” . The media only gave an average of 7% of possible airtime to female candidates.
In terms of ethnic minorities, several ODIHR EOM interlocutors reported that they were “vulnerable to vote-buying practices” and that a number of Roma an Egyptian communities received distributed goods in an effort to “influence their choice”. Voter registration issues were also observed due to many members of these community not having an official residence or address. Furthermore, the CEC failed to produce any election-related educational materials in any minority languages despite these minorities having a right to vote in Albania.
Despite previous ODIHR recommendations and international good practice, non-citizens are still ineligible to vote in local elections, irrespective of the length of their residency.
Criticism of the media’s coverage was in a similar vein to that of recent international press freedom organisations- namely that journalists resort to self-censorship due to the reliance on political alignment and business interests of outlet owners. The report said media outlets acting as “lobbying platforms” for their owners.
They found that Top Channel, TV Klan and RTSH-1 served as a platform to promote the SP and criticised the DP whilst talk shows on News 24 (both of which have since been cancelled) criticised the ruling party. RTSH (the public broadcaster) is supervised by Thoma Gelleci, the former editor-in-chief of the SP newspaper as well as the station being partially dependent on state funding resulting in “politicisation” and raising concerns over impartiality. Vizion Plus was marginally more balanced yet devoted more time (44%) to the SP on its talk shows.
The practice of the SP stopping journalists from attending official events and then providing them pre-shot footage was found to “limit voters’ ability to obtain objective information”. The ODIHR said that this practice “challenged the fundamental right of the media to receive information” and that it “reduced the accountability of state officials to the public.”
ODIHR also questioned the impartiality and independence of the Audiovisual Media Authority as its members are appointed by parliament. They also observed that journalists are subjected to intimidation, harassment, and assault that are “rarely thoroughly investigated and prosecuted” resulting in an atmosphere of impunity, according to the ODIHR.
They recommended that senior management positions at the public broadcaster should not be given to people with “clear political affiliation” and that the independence of the media regulator should be strengthened through measures that prevent a conflict of interest. In addition to this, the Electoral Code should guarantee equal access to the media for all contesting parties and allow them to purchase advertising under equal conditions.
Political Pressure on Citizens
The ODIHR found that citizens, especially those employed in public administration, came under pressure to demonstrate a political preference- something that is a violation of the OSCE Copenhagen agreement. They reported that citizens told them of their concerns that either voting, or not voting would expose them to retribution in their communities. Several described direct intimidation and threats of firing or withdrawal of social service benefits.
“Many” allegations were made to the ODIHR that despite it being illegal, that public administration and utility enterprise employees were under “direct and indirect pressure to engage in political activity during and after working hours”. The ODIHR said there was a widespread perception that employment in the public sector is dependent on political affiliation.
Group voting including family voting was noted in 10% of observations and officials were also observed “helping” citizens to vote.
The ODIHR EOM also witnessed cases of voter intimidation and violation of the secrecy of the vote in the voting centres and received similar reports from political parties. It stated that these cases were not officially registered because citizens did not report them to the police. Several ODIHR interlocutors expressed concerns about overall lack of effectiveness of criminal investigations that contributes to a widespread perception of impunity over the past electoral crimes, including for vote-buying and pressure on voters.
The CEC registered the Democratic Conviction Party (DCP) as an electoral subject on 27 April despite the fact it only registered as a political party two days before. The report observed how the DCP was not required to collect supporting signatures (no less than 1% of voters from the respective municipality) that were required by any other party looking to register.
Prior to voting day, each voter was supposed to receive a written notification from the municipality, detailing the location of the voting centre yet this was ignored in a number of regions. In addition to this, publicly displayed voter lists were taken down in the middle of June on the order of opposition mayors, depriving voters of the possibility to verify their data.
Whilst voting was generally orderly and considered “positive” in 95% of overall observations, there were issues around voters not being checked for traces of ink, proxy voting, and voter influencing. Also observed were group voting in 10% of cases and “assistance” in voting being provided to multiple voters in 16% of cases.
Inside voting centres, 5% were found to violate the right for the secrecy of the vote and 6% had an “inadequate layout” with 10% of voters not able to vote in secret. ODIHR interlocutors feared that their participation would reveal their political preference and in fact mainly SP but some DP kept track of voters who participated.
The ODIHR observed many irregularities starting with the fact that most Counting Teams and VCCs were inexperienced or represented the SP.
Fourteen delivered ballot boxes were declared irregular, including due to missing or broken seals, but only half of those cases were properly recorded. Almost 10% of results tabulations were found to be problematic in all observed cases.
Most concerning was the fact that the total number of ballots cast wasn’t counted or compared to the signatures on the voter list in 18 cases with votes for all parties and candidates not announced in a further 17 cases. The ODIHR also noted that the practice of counting votes in BCCs rather than at voting centres could be prone to abuse.
It was also observed that all complaints filed to the CEC regarding irregularities or requesting the invalidation of election results (totally 40 municipalities) were rejected and dismissed.
Election day was reported as being “generally peaceful” and the CEC established the official nationwide figure at 22.96 per cent. The ruling Socialist Party won by 94.05% in total of 60 out of 61 Municipalities due to the fact that the SP ran uncontested in most races.
The CEC received requests for invalidation of election results in more than 40 municipalities, mainly due to alleged difference between official turnout and data reported by the party observers. The CEC rejected all these complaints mainly for the lack of evidence. The Electoral College stepped in to allocate mandates for all 61 local councils due to CEC’s failure to reach the required qualified majority for the decision. On 27 July, the CEC approved the final election results.
The ODIHR noted that the CEC’s interpretation of the law that only those parliamentary parties that are contesting the elections can nominate members, left the election administration politically unbalanced. As a result, many ODIHR EOM interlocutors expressed lack of trust in all levels of the commissions.
Some ODIHR EOM interlocutors expressed concerns about the CEC’s lack of impartiality, pointing to instances in which the majority of CEC members voted along party lines. It was also observed that the Electoral College judges could have their independence impacted by the ongoing vetting process.
The ODIHR recommended as a priority, in order to strengthen pluralistic democracy and integrity, political parties should engage in “open and inclusive dialogue”. They were also called upon to eliminate the “long-standing problem” of misuse of administrative resources and to depoliticize the civil service. Pressure should “not be applied on voters” to attend political events or vote a certain way.
Voters should also have their right to a free and secret vote guaranteed and authorities should properly investigate all allegations of electoral violations “thoroughly, swiftly, and in a transparent manner.” Jobs and social benefits should not be infringed due to lack of allegiance with a political party and anyone reporting instances of wrongdoing should be protected as a “whistle-blower”.
Effective measures should also be taken to further strengthen the recruitment and training methods of commissioners in order to ensure their professionalism, according to the report. Additionally, the rules on candidate registration and withdrawals should be formulated precisely and their implementation by the CEC should be guided by the principle of legal certainty.
It was noted that most of the ODIHR recommendations from 2017 remain unaddressed, particularly those relating to the de-politicization of election administration, decriminalization of defamation and effectiveness of election dispute resolution.