AIM: start



FRI, 27 JUL 2001 18:21:50 GMT

ELECTIONS AMERICANA

AIM TIRANA, July 27, 2001

The Albanian Socialists have managed to secure a second government mandate out of the summer 2001 parliamentary elections but, it seems, they have failed to be given a clean bill of health on the fairness of the election process itself. Despite a spectacularly spotless start, the electoral process became flawed unnecessarily along the way.

After the end of the third elections round but by no means the last one, the Socialists of ex-premier Fatos Nano have gained about 75 seats in the 140-seat parliament. Meanwhile, the opposition, led by ex-president Sali Berisha, has managed to win some 45 seats. Another 20 seats will be allocated to the small parties, most of which are allied to the pro-Socialist bloc.

The Socialists, who ran on their own, gained nearly 42 percent of the overall votes whereas the Democrats, who entered a coalition with their smaller allies, won 36 percent of the vote. The result of the New Democrat Party of Genc Pollo, once the right hand and and later a critic of Berisha, provided the biggest surprise: it obtained 5.2 percent the vote, thus becoming the third biggest political force in the country.

Nearly 55 percent of the eligible voters participated in the 24 June elections, marking the lowest participation in an electoral process in these ten years of post-Communist transition. The participation has been plunging in the second and third rounds, mirroring the public's fatigue with an overstretched process.

International monitors were optimistic in their evaluation of the Albanian elections after the first round, labelling them as "a significant step towards the fulfillment of democratic standards for elections." Their enthusiasm was followed by disappointment and their list of criticism grew in the ensuing rounds. However, in spite of the criticism, the international observers insisted on the progress made during these elections as well as in their peaceful conduct.

U.S. President George W.Bush also said during his speech addressed to the American soldiers in Bundsteel military base in Kosovo that "the last elections in Albania were less than perfect, but they were a step ahead towards the democratic development in Albania."

The Socialists, unquestioned winners of the electoral race, might have "falsified" or flawed their victory due to their exaggerated eagerness to secure to be in position to elect the next President contemporaneously with obtaining the second ruling mandate . A parliamentary majority of 60 percent of the votes is needed to elect the president in a year's time. If this majority is not obtained after three voting rounds, then the country will have to hold early elections.

The last elections, with a dose of irony, can also be dubbed as "Elections Americana." The endless comings and goings at the courts of all levels, the opening of the ballot boxes, the counting of votes in front of the cameras and the frequent press conferences were reminiscent of the last American elections. The various sides have filed complaints with the Constitutional Court. Surprisingly, the Albanian "Florida" was not missing either: Dushk, a village in Central Albania, where voting did not take place on June 24, but two weeks later.

The re-run of the elections in the constituency number 60 in Dushk resembles a soccer match which is being played on the last day of the championship after the other matches have ended and which the Socialists played as if it was a friendly with their allies (The Democratic Alliance, Agrarian Party, and the Union for Human Rights Party.) So, they called on all of their supporters to vote for their ex-allies rather than for the Socialists to help the former cross the 2.5 percent of vote threshold needed to enter parliament.

Due to this formula, which does not necessarily breach the Law but rather the law's spirit, the Socialists distributed ( helped their allies gain nearly 10 seats) nearly ten seats out of the 40 seats allocated on the basis of the proportional vote, thus harming the other parliamentarian parties. The Albanian law is a combined one and it favours the small parties if they reach the 2.5 percent threshold.

It still remains unclear whether the opposition led by ex-President Berisha will accept the defeat and will recognize the elections' result. Berisha, who has adopted a more moderate political course than usual in the last months, has not yet passed judgement. His dilemma of whether to recognize the elections' results or not will most likely be resolved by a middle ground formula, consisting in a partial recognition (or denial.)

In contrast with the harsh reaction embodied in on-the-streets protests that accompanied the period after the October local elections, now the opposition has chosen an institutionally-oriented reaction, complaining to the courts and the Central Election Commission, which has positively improved its shaky democratic credentials. Another card the opposition seems intent to play, once its has lodged complaints at the Albanian courts, consists in taking the election irregularities to the Strasbourg Court towards the Strasbourg Court, an action aimed at internationalizing the elections' problem.

As a matter of fact, the observed irregularities, if casting a shadow on the Socialists' victory, do not seem to essentially alter the Democrats' defeat. However, it is likely that the pages with critical notes of the international observers' report on the elections will serve as an argument (or even as an excuse) for the Democratic Party and Berisha himself to avoid a serious analysis of the defeat in elections.

On the other hand, the Socialists face the challenge of surmounting internal divisions. With the electoral process not yet officially closed, the rival groupings in the Socialist camp have declared war on each other, contending the Prime Minister's post. On the one side there is the incumbent Prime Minister Ilir Meta, hailed by the public for achievements during his term but apparently not-so-popular in his own party. Meta's main opponent is former Minister of Finance Arben Malaj, not-so-popular with the public but seemingly with broader support within his own party. Meta has the advantage of unambiguous international support, which counts a lot in a country like Albania. Malaj seems to have the backing of the chairman of the party, Nano, the most important figure among the Socialists. Nano is in the difficult position of a person who seeks to avoid the infringement of his authority within the party on one hand, and on the other hand to avoid friction with Western donors, who support Meta.

So far the Socialists have tried to solve the internal conflicts and confrontations by adopting the formula of the internal intra-Socialist coalition. If this cannot be repeated, then the division, which might lead to the schism in two groups, would be unavoidable, and the country would delve into unexpected political events.

The challenges to the next Socialist government are by no means easy. Since the international community probably has not thoroughly spoken its own mind about the elections, it is not to be excluded that the critical notes will increase in the future. It seems that Berisha's alibi, or anti-Berisha card, which has worked to the Socialists' favour for a long time, will not be valid any longer. Internationally-recognized democratic standards and tangible results will be the yardstick used by both Albanians and foreigners for assessing the future Socialist government.

A recent Department of State Report ranked Albania among the 23 countries involved in several kinds of trafficking and demanded Tirana to engage more seriously in fighting them. War against corruption, governmental one included, still remains Achilles' heel in governing Albania.

Independently of who will be the next Prime Minister, the future government is expected to be primarily a Socialist one. The composition of the government will very much depend on which side will emerge as a winner from the struggle for power within the party.

The smaller parties, Agrarian Party and Democratic Alliance, allies of the Socialists, can preserve their present portfolios and later next year raise their hand to vote for the election of the President.

It is not clear whether the nervous Social Democrats will join the ruling coalition. However, even though they might join the alliance, they will hardly retain the key posts of Speaker of Parliament and Minister of Foreign Affairs. The Socialists have signalled they are determined to pick a Minister of Foreign Affairs out of their own ranks, although apparently they are having difficulty finding an acceptable and appropriate figure for this job.

On its own, the Party for Human Rights, representing the minorities, after the defeat in the elections and the entrance to the parliament with the crutches' support, seems in search of a way out. Usually, the important decisions for this party were made in Athens. The Greek government, in contrast with the havoc that accompanied the October local elections, has adopted a cautious stance vis--vis the last elections, an almost indifferent one. A statement from the Greek government spokesman after the first round of voting congratulated on the peaceful conduct of elections in Albania, without commenting on the result of the Party of Human Rights.

The elections that are drawing to a close in Albania have solved some problems and have left some others in limbo. The era of referenda-elections and that of the "vote against" one seems to have perished. The Albanians have chosen between the two alternatives and the difference has been sensitively diminished . Nobody possesses the frightening monopoly of the two-thirds. Most importantly, gunshots were not heard next to the ballot boxes this time. In a sense, politics in Albania starts now.

REMZI LANI