Monday, July 18, 2011

Albania's Labyrinthine Local Elections

Opposition lawmakers protest the decision to count votes previously considered invalid, in Albania in May.

After two months and countless debates and legal proceedings, the local elections are finally over, or so it seems. Against all facts and expectations that pointed towards a revote in Tirana, the Electoral College on July 8 confirmed Lulzim Basha as the new mayor of Tirana with 93 votes more than his opponent, Edi Rama.

The Socialist Party, headed by Rama, won the major cities including Tirana, but dubious legal proceedings by the Central Electoral Commission, heavily criticized by OSCE-ODIHR, changed the result—which on May 14, when the counting process in Tirana finished, saw Rama winning by just 10 votes.

There were two main problems in Tirana. One votes were counted that were found in other ballot boxes. Two, in the final result from the Central Electoral Commission there are more votes than voters.

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For the first issue there are no clear answers in the electoral code, but in the local elections of 2007 these votes were considered invalid. The same thing happened again in 2011. According to the preliminary report by OSCE-ODIHR mission in Albania, these votes were considered invalid until May 14 when the counting process finished and Basha lost by 10 votes.

"Counting team members were apparently trained to consider any such ballots as invalid, and miscast ballots were considered invalid in Tirana through the conclusion of counting for the Tirana mayoral race on 14 May," the report said. In the voting centers there were people assigned especially for instructing voters to cast the vote in the proper box, otherwise the vote would be considered invalid. During the counting process all over Albania these votes were considered invalid and the process went smoothly and without problems.

In Tirana the situation changed after Basha lost. In a press conference immediately after the final votes were counted, Prime Minister Sali Berisha said that his party's candidate had won, and he demanded from the Central Electoral Commission to consider valid votes that until then were considered invalid. CEC obeyed because its majority is controlled by the Democratic Party. It counted only 117 ballot boxes.

Tirana's race until the end was approximately 50-50. In these 117 boxes that the CEC opened, the votes were 70-30 for Basha. According to Shekulli newspaper in Tirana, which contacted a mathematician, for this to happen the probability was 1 in 200 million. These ballot boxes and others that were opened later had severe problems—security codes missing, votes of one electoral center found in a ballot box that had nothing to do with it, broken ballot boxes, votes found outside the envelope where every invalid vote should be—and everything was found correct by the Central Electoral Commission.

Tom Countryman, deputy assistant secretary for the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs, during an interview with Voice of America said, "The question of counting the miscast ballots was not well handled. We've said throughout the process that the rules must be clear and that they must be applied in a transparent and fair manner. … The rules about counting the miscast ballots were made only after election day. The legal basis for making this decision is not clear to us. I understand the argument put forward by the Central Election Commission, but this is an argument that could have been made and should have been made prior to the elections, and on the basis of a consensus among all the parties. The way it was handled here has unnecessarily put a shadow on what was otherwise a very positive process."

The OSCE-ODIHR mission in Albania said that "the legal basis for opening the ballot boxes was unclear" in their preliminary report. Alexander Arvizu, U.S. ambassador in Albania, during a TV interview said that the Central Electoral Commision worked according to party lines and this was disappointing. Asked by the interviewer to assign a grade to CEC on a scale of 10, Arvizu said "five or six." He also said that CEC should have announced a result on May 14 when the counting process finished and Rama won by 10 votes, which didn't happen.

The second problem had to do with the total number of votes in the final result by the Central Electoral Commission. In the final result by the Central Electoral Commission for Tirana, there were 870 votes more than voters. Lets take two examples. In the electoral center number 1696, according to the result, 456 people voted, while the total number of valid and invalid votes was 483—27 votes more. In another electoral center, number 1736/1, according to the results by CEC, 681 people voted, while the total number of valid and invalid votes was 689—8 votes more. This happened in 109 electoral centers.

In these local elections this was not the first time when there were more votes than voters. It happened in Kolsh and Armen. In these two cases the number of votes and voters was not the same, so the Electoral College called for revoting. In Armen only one vote more than the total number of voters was found. These two cases are identical with Tirana. The difference between two candidates in the final result by CEC was 93 votes, while the difference between votes and voters was more than 800.

The Socialist Party demanded the Electoral College to declare invalidity as it had done in the other cases. All the facts and former precedents went towards a revote in Tirana. The Electoral College didn't accept the party's demand because it was beyond legal deadline, which is also dubious.

A political party has the right to contest the result no more than three days after the result is announced. The first result by the Central Electoral Commission was on May 23. On June 13, the Electoral College, after an appeal by the Socialist Party, urged CEC to count all invalid votes in Tirana. The May 23 result that declared Basha winner was annulled. After all the ballot boxes were counted, CEC announced the final result in June 28, so the Socialist Party had the right to contest the result no more than three days after it was announced, which it did. Surprisingly, the Electoral College said that is was beyond the legal deadline, the same Electoral College that in other similar cases had declared invalidity and revote when the number of votes was more than the voters.

In a press conference hours after the Electoral College's decision, Chairman of the Socialist Party Edi Rama said, "Justice is dead."

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