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Three major challenges in the Albanian parliament, especially for the opposition

The three major challenges at the beginning of Albania’s current parliamentary legislature include the review of the municipal territorial division and the structure of local government, the review of the electoral legislation after the experience of the April 25 general elections and also finding a solution for the vetting bodies, whose term is coming to an end. In all three cases, the legal changes require a qualified majority, including in some cases a constitutional variant. In this legislature, these changes can only happen if the majority and the opposition find a consensus.

All three of these issues are not only important for democracy and the state, as an abstract concept, but also have a direct impact on people’s daily lives. This makes it even more necessary for the opposition to formulate a stance on them.

In the Democratic Party (DP), the policy departments and working groups have continuously prepared analyses and recommendations on these topics. But now, updated versions need to be reviewed, debated and approved by party bodies such as the presidency, the council and the group. This should possibly happen in parallel with a wider consultation that would deal with membership (especially regarding territorial reform), interest groups and civil society.

Clear positioning in the content is fundamental for a political force that has a certain programatic profile. The general public perceives these positions, forms impressions, and beliefs which then affect its vote.  A certain positioning is not written in stone. It can evolve. When any negotiation is needed, as in our three issues, compromises must be reached. The latter in Europe is seen as indicative of mature and civilized politics. But compromises need to be principled, reasonable, and proportionate.

An outline of each of the three challenges:

1) Territorial division of local government or the boomerang of a boycott?

In Albania, in the spring of 2014, when the SP-SMI (Socialist Party and the Socialist Movement for Integration ) majority took the “territorial reform” initiative, the opposition DP decided to join the Special Parliamentary Commission, then chaired by the late Bashkim Fino. it set conditions. Some of them were reasonable, but were partly unrelated to the topic, and a few others were exaggerated.

In the end, the DP did not participate, even though the government commanded a qualified 3/5 majority because some DP MPs defected to the SMI. Those from the Party for Justice, Integration and Unity (PJIU), who came out of the joint DP lists, entered the Commission.

The DP organized parallel debates regarding the concept of reform. They did not prevent the government from later approving later a new territorial division. The opposition complained about electoral salamandering and regional favoritism and contested 2015’s local elections and reached a poor result.

By participating in the Commission, the Democratic Party would have taken responsibility, 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: e.g: 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. This culminated in election campaigns, just as the OSCE/ODIHR noted for the April 25 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 DP could be getting belatedly, and probably for a price, what it would get for free in 2014.

2) Electoral reform is not like Penelope weaving a burial shroud

The package of amendments that had been consenually agreed upon by the DP and SP on June 5, 2020, was good. The old syndrome of non-compliance and non-enforcement of the law remained the main problem. The new legislation prohibited, in detail, electoral employment, investment, and other favors, but they happened nevertheless. The government, the municipalities and the candidates did not care about the law. The Central Election Commission pretended to see nothing; on some rare occasion, it imposed ridiculous fines which were overturned on appeal.

As far as the already international scandal of ‘patronagists’ is concerned, the Special Anti-Corruption Structure recused itself and handed over the case to the Tirana prosecutor’s office even though the consensual amendments force it to investigate electoral crimes. The Commissioner of Personal Data, after investigating the scandal, concluded that the SP was not guilty because it had violated the law out of 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 squares, both inside and outside of the country for the punitive implementation of the law. Hopefully, the punishment today will deter the offenders tomorrow.

The June 5 consensus was shattered by current Prime Minister Edi Rama’s unilateral amendments to the constitution and to the electoral code. The “burning of mandates” made this possible and the direct consequence was that about eight more MPs from the Socialist Party along with the third government term.

This, however, is not the time to be crying over spilt milk. Without cancelling the legislative-electoral reneging, it is pointless to talk about legislative electoral cooperation. When you cheat me for ‘x’ amount of times, whose fault is it?. The possibility of plural coalitions needs to be restored. Open lists should be abrogated no matter how short-sighted the idealists and harmful idiots would likely protest.

Electronic voting was successfully tested in the 10th district of Albania’s capital, Tirana. The most reasonable way is to extend it as wide as possible. For example, Albanian citizens residing abroad can use electronic voting.

3) The vetting dilemma

The mandate of the vetting bodies ends next year. The Albanian constitution provides for heads of these bodies (known as the Independent Qualification Commission, or IQC) to be supported by half of the majority and half by the opposition in the parliament. This is the arrangement of the “Hahn-Nuland” formula which was initially proposed by the DP. And then, with astonishing negligence, the party did not encourage eminent jurists to apply as candidates, so it had to vote for unknown individuals, most of whom were people close to the Socialist Party. T

The consequence has been a compromised IQC that issues quite a few contradictory decisions, some of which have ultimately eliminated those the SP did not want, even though they were originally fine with the verification process to select them. They even saved some preferred candidates, despite the fact that they later became problematic. This has been widely seen and debated by the Albanian media and in local politics. 

Meanwhile, only half of the judges and prosecutors have actually passed the vetting process. 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.

The Socialist Party has, for several months, asked for the mandate of the IQC to be extended. Last week, the SP submitted to the Assembly a constitutional amendment that extends the IQC’s term until the end of 2024. Unfortunately, for something major like amending the constitution, there has not been a professional or public debate to objectively analyze why the vetting process was not carried out according to forecasts made in 2016.

What were the Rama’s achievements and failures? The speeches that were given on the fifth anniversary of the so-called justice reform campaign, which was attended by government and international officials, were simply celebratory, self-congratulatory and detached from reality. This was seen in the behavior of the political parties and key decision-makers, e.g. those who are the main players responsible for the reforms. Likewise, it was also the case with NGOs that follow the progress of these reforms and publish studies on them. The media is also a part of this group.

There is no shortage of other possible options:

a) The proposal by the government should be rejected a priori because it aims to continue and consolidate the capture of the process; with an outcome that is already known;

b) The procedure for the appointment of Independent Qualification Commission members can be reopened and, this time, the balance that was envisaged 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 almost the only actor with an interest in improving the vetting process, but the Democratic Party cannot linger further into inaction.  A debate that should lead to serious political positions and legislative proposals needs to start as soon as possible.

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