Parliament faces three major challenges this legislature: reviewing the municipal territorial division and the organization of local government, reviewing electoral law following the issued raised by the April 25 general elections, and also reaching a solution for the judicial vetting bodies whose term is coming to an end.
In all three cases, any legal changes require a qualified majority. Therefore, during this legislature, these changes can only happen if the majority and the opposition find consensus.
These issues are not a mere philosophical abstraction for our democracy; they have a direct impact on people’s daily lives. This makes it even more necessary for the opposition to formulate a clear stance on them.
In the Democratic Party, policy and working groups have continuously prepared analyses and recommendations on these topics. But now, these recommendations and updates need to be reviewed, debated and approved by internal party bodies such as the presidency and the council. In theory, any such review should also be widely consulted with party membership (especially regarding territorial reform), interest groups, and civil society.
For a political force with a certain ideological profile, it is fundamental that it take a clear stance on these matters. The general public hears these positions, forms their opinions and beliefs on the party, which then affect how it votes. Any given political position need not be written in stone; it can evolve. When negotiation is needed, as in these three issues, compromises must be reached. In Europe, compromise is seen as indicative of mature and civilized politics. But compromises need to be principled, reasonable, and proportionate.
1- Territorial division of local government or the boomerang of boycott
In the spring of 2014, when the parliamentary majority (comprised of the Socialist Party (PS) and the Socialist Movement for Integration (LSI)), took the initiative to undertake a “territorial reform”, the opposition PD decided to join the Special Parliamentary Commission, then chaired by the late Bashkim Fino.
Then it set its conditions to the reform; some of them reasonable, some partly unrelated to the topic, and a few that were exaggerated. Ultimately, the PD did not participate in the vote, although the government managed to reach a qualified majority of 3/5, as some PD MPs defected to LSI.
The PD organized parallel debates regarding the reform. However, they did not prevent the government from approving the new territorial division later that summer. The opposition complained about electoral gerrymandering and regional favoritism. It contested the 2015 local elections and reached a poor result.
If it had remained and participated in the Commission, the Democratic Party would have taken responsibility for the final result, but it would also have had a significant impact on the new division of municipalities.
Six years later the reform proves unsuccessful in many respects. For example, rural areas were left without access to municipal services which migrated to the urban center; the administrator, who is appointed, unlike the mayor who was elected, no longer had eyes and ears for the concerns of the residents. The number of local government staff did not decrease as promised but increased for partisan needs, its numbers culminating during the latest in election campaigns (as the OSCE / ODIHR noted in its report on the 25 April elections). These and other topics such as financial autonomy, may be subject to local government review. But if the focus remained only on the map, it would be deficient. And the PD could be getting belatedly and probably for a price, what it would get for free in 2014.
2-Electoral Reform Must Be Penelope’s Web
The package of amendments agreed consensually by the PD and PS on June 5, 2020, was good. As always, the problem remained compliance with and enforcement of the law. The new legislation prohibited electoral employment, investment, and other favors. But they happened nevertheless! The government, the municipalities and the candidates did not care about the law. The CEC pretended to see nothing; on some rare occasion, it imposed ridiculous fines which were overturned on appeal.
As far as the international-known scandal of patrons is concerned, SPAK recused itself and handed over the case to the Tirana prosecutor’s office (it did the same with file 184 in Dibra two years ago) even though the consensual amendments force it to investigate electoral crimes. While the Commissioner of Personal Data, after investigating the scandal, concluded that the PS was not guilty because it had violated the law by ignorance (sic!)
In these circumstances of state capture, debates on reforms and legislative initiatives are meaningless. The only tool is to increase public and political pressure, in institutions and in the squares, inside and outside the country, for the implementation of the law, against punishment. Hopefully, punishment today will deter the offenders of tomorrow.
The June 5 consensus was then shattered by Rama’s unilateral amendments to the constitution and to the electoral code. The “burning of mandates” made this possible and the direct consequence was about eight more MPs for the PS, along with a third term in office.
But this is not the time to keep crying over the spilled milk: if we do not neutralize legislative and electoral faithlessness, it is pointless to talk about legislative electoral cooperation (when you lie to me for the umpteenth time, whose fault is it?). The possibility of plural coalitions needs to be restored; “open lists” should be abrogated no matter how many short-sighted idealists and harmful fools protest.
Electronic voting was successfully tested in the 10th district of Tirana. The most reasonable choice is to extend it as wide as possible. Albanian citizens voting from abroad can so electronically.
3-The vetting dilemma
The mandate of the first instance vetting bodies ends next year. The Constitution provides that the members of the Independent Qualification Commission (ICQ) be appointed in equal parts by the majority and opposition. This is the arrangement of the “Hahn-Nuland” formula which was initially proposed by the PD.
And then, with astonishing negligence, the party did not encourage eminent jurists to apply as candidates for the ICQ. So it was forced to vote for strangers, most who had close ties to the PS. The consequence has been an influenceable IQC issuing quite a few decisions that amount to a double standard.
These decisions did away with those the PS did not want, even though they should have passed their vetting, and “saved” others, the ones preferred by the PS, even though they resulted problematic. This has been widely seen and debated by media and politics.
Meanwhile, only half of judges and prosecutors have passed the vetting. The constitution stipulates that as the mandate of the IQC expires its function will be taken over by the High Council of the Judiciary and of the Prosecution, respectively.
For several months, the PS has asked that the mandate of the IQC to be extended. Last week, the SP submitted to Parliament a constitutional amendment that extends the IQC’s term until the end of 2024.
Unfortunately, amending the Constitution is a major decision, and yet, there has not been a professional and public debate to analyze, with objectivity, why the vetting was not carried out according to the original timeframe expected in 2016?
What have been its achievements and failures? And what should be changed?
Even the speeches on the occasion of the fifth anniversary of the justice reform attended by government and international officials were simply celebratory, self-congratulatory and detached from reality. So has been the case with political parties that are the main responsible for the reform and decision-makers. Likewise, the NGOs that follow the progress of this reform and publish studies on it, as well as Albanian media.
Other action options are not lacking:
a- The proposal of the government should be rejected a priori because it aims to continue and consolidate the capture of the process; with already known outcomes!
b- The procedure for the appointment of KPC members can be reopened and, this time, the balance envisioned by the constitution can be achieved;
c- The Constitution can be applied; that is, vetting powers can be transferred to the High Council of the Judiciary and the Prosecution, but these need to be reformed, adapted, and equipped with the resources of the IQC.
d- There may be other options presented during a professional and public debate.
From what we have seen so far, the opposition is one of the very few actors with an interest in improving the vetting process. But the Democratic Party cannot linger further in inaction. A debate that should lead to serious political positions and legislative proposals needs to start as soon as possible.
Genc Pollo is a former Deputy Prime Minister, Minister of Education, Minister of Telecom & IT, former Chairman of the Parliamentary Committee on Education and Media and also of European Integration.