From: Alice Taylor
Analysis: Council of Europe Report Albanian Elections ‘Inclusive’ but Marred by Irregularities

The Socialist Party enjoyed a significant advantage from incumbency, state resources, and a media that favored them prior to the April 25 elections in Albania. Meanwhile, allegations of vote-buying, pressuring, and the influencing of public sector employees was pervasive.

This is according to a delegation from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe in their recently published report. The Assembly sent 11 teams who observed the voting process in Tirana, Elbasan, Durres, Kavaje, Diber, Lezhe, Fier, and other rural locations.

They described the elections as “lively and inclusive” thanks to a “legal framework that helped ensure respect of fundamental freedoms”. At the same time, they noted that authorities took advantage of public office, and there were allegations of “pervasive vote-buying,” indicating that it is still a problem in Albania.

The delegation noted that the same issues were present in 2017 and were condemned by the Assembly, yet appear to have not been fully addressed in the 2021 elections. 

They noted that despite the legal and constitutional changes undertaken in 2020, previous recommendations were not attended to, including those related to suffrage rights for disabled people, the criminalization of defamation, the use of party campaign materials in the news, and equal rights between party and citizen observers.

They described the Constitution and electoral law changes as “extremely hasty,” having been implemented without broad consultation between public stakeholders and NGOs.

Another issue was the 1% national threshold applied to independent candidates. This could potentially challenge the principle of standing on equal terms, according to the report.

The report said that the CEC worked transparently overall and enjoyed a level of trust from stakeholders. However, amendments to the law created new obligations that they didn’t have the time or resources to implement effectively. 

In terms of electronic voting carried out in Tirana, it was flawed as no independent audit of certification was performed. Short timeframes didn’t allow for public discourse and independent scrutiny, which are essential, the report said.

Electronic identification was also hampered by a lack of technical staff, a lack of public scrutiny, and no impartial audits of any kind.

In terms of the campaign itself, the political movement “lacked vigor,” with parties focussing on the prominent party leaders instead of genuine, issue-driven discourse. The report notes that the electorate was presented between continuity with the PS or change with the PD-SMI collaboration. The language used by party leaders was described as “confrontational” and “fervent.”

The PS used the COVID-19 pandemic and earthquake reconstruction as their primary focus, whereas the Opposition rallied around the core theme of countering the “heavily centralized power of Prime Minister Rama.” Regarding COVID-19 restrictions around campaign activity, the report said they were not apple consistently, and non-compliance was tolerated in most events. In some cases, sanctions and fines were levied against independent candidates.

It was observed that the law prohibits the misuse of administrative resources and limits budgetary spending four months before the election. The subsequent reporting on denouncements on these issues was limited in its usefulness, according to the report.

Ministers continued with official engagements throughout the campaign and used the vaccination process to create propaganda. PS officials even visited vaccination sites while wearing T-shirts with No.12 (the PS ballot number) on them. Rama also inaugurated several large infrastructure projects in the preceding months, providing him and his part with “a significant advantage,” which was reinforced by the party’s dominance in local administration.

Public employment also increased significantly before the elections. Those working in the public sector were also reportedly encouraged and pressured to vote for the ruling party. 

The report also noted the leak of the PS database containing the personal data of over 910,000 Albanian citizens. 

“Several IEOM interlocutors from key political parties believed that this kind of incident could be considered by the electorate as misuse of personal data for party interest.”

In terms of the media, the report found that “Media outlets often serve as lobbying platforms for their owners, thus challenging their editorial independence and inducing self-censorship. Many interlocutors stated that in the absence of effective self-regulation and uncertain labor conditions, journalists remain vulnerable to pressure.”

They noted that the capacity of AMA to conduct media oversight during the election was questionable. They also observed that AMA’s findings showed that the PS systematically received more coverage than any other party. Broadcasters also ignored the appeals of the CEC and AMA to make up for the imbalance in time. Many instances of advertising irregularities were found as well.

Overall, broadcasters failed to provide comprehensive coverage of all contestants. The issue of political parties not allowing media to attend events, instead providing them with prerecorded footage, was also noted.

Major media outlets refrained from in-depth analysis, and there were no televised debates between leaders. Klan News was called out for placing political banners during films and programs, contrary to the law.

The ruling party derived a significant advantage from its incumbency, including through its control of local administrations and the misuse of administrative resources. This was amplified by positive coverage of State institutions in the media.

Furthermore, the PS received more favorable coverage than the PD, as well as significantly more airtime. This reduced information for voters and limited their ability to make an informed choice.