Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Albania Election Campaign Turns Nasty

Accusations of physical abuse and other irregularities knock Albania’s image as a mature democracy.
By Suela Musta

Allegations of violence and corruption have marred an increasingly nasty election campaign in Albania, potentially harming the country’s international profile and damaging its democratic credentials.

With voting due to take place on July 3 and the result expected to be a close run affair, candidates on the election trail have reported being attacked and intimidated.

“We are getting increasing complaints of party militants resorting to violence against rivals,” said Edlira Teferici, an official from the ministry of public order.

Albert Ndreca, a supporter of a candidate for the main opposition Democratic Party in Tirana, said he was beaten up while out electioneering June 20. He blames followers of a rival candidate.

“Firstly, I was verbally abused,” Ndreca told the Balkans Crisis Report, BCR. “Then one of [the] militants hit me, because I refused to remove Democratic Party flags and posters from my home.”

In Korca, southeast Albania, Ben Blushi, the ruling Socialists’ candidate, says mayor Robert Damo, a Democrat, tore his election posters off the walls and then fined him for putting them up in the first place.

Damo admitted to BCR he took down the posters, saying they “broke municipality rules”.

And the heat is not only on candidates and supporters of the big parties.

Smaller groups, such as the Christian Democrats led by Nikollë Lesi, claim their candidates are also under pressure. “It’s a political vendetta led by the [the] prime minister,” said Lesi. “They are even firing our candidates from their jobs prior to the election.”

Sokol Dervishi, of the Socialist Movement for Integration, LSI, which is campaigning for the first time, said the violence and intimidation means the elections are undemocratic.

“We cannot talk of a democratic and free political race when there are no democratic rules of the game and when candidates face threats,” said Dervishi, citing an incident after a televised debate on June 9 during which Dritan Prifti, an LSI candidate, claims he was assaulted by a Socialist supporter.

Agim Nezaj, advisor to the attorney general in Albania, told BCR that the authorities would expose and punish the perpetrators of violent incident against candidates.

Election observers attribute some of the problems to the closeness of the vote with both the Socialists and the Democrats running neck and neck.

Many Albanians remain undecided, torn between the Socialist slogan of “Defend the Future” and the Democrats’ “Time for Change”.

“This is going to be the most unpredictable election result in Albania’s 15 years of democracy,” said Lutfi Dervishi, a political analyst.

He said candidates have reacted to the uncertainly by attempting “to buy votes rather than win them”.

Vasililika Hysi, head of the Helsinki Committee in Albania, said the constant atmosphere of low-level violence and intimidation is disappointing.

“Violent incidents and torn posters are far from the image of a quiet and democratic electoral campaign, which Albania must show it is capable of organising,” he said.

Albania’s most influential NGO, Mjaft, believes it has uncovered another serious problem in the electoral process.

Endi Fuga, a Mjaft representative, said the group knew of several unnamed party candidates from both the Socialists and the Democrats in northern Albania who had criminal ties and records. It refused to name them for legal reasons.

“These people should be investigated rather than have their names on the election list,” said Fuga.

Both major parties, however, were quick to declare their election lists squeaky clean.

“Our candidates have professional values and are people of the highest moral and social responsibility,” said Democrat Lulzim Basha.

Mago Lakrori, from the Socialists, lodged a similar defence. “There are no compromising facts whatsoever, either from the prosecutor’s office or from other investigating bodies against Socialist candidates,” he said.

In addition to violence and intimidation, opposition parties claim they face another election hurdle. The Democrats are accusing the Socialists of bending the rules on campaign financing by using public money to finance their own parties.

“The Socialists have all the advantages that come from being in managing posts in the administration over the last eight years,” said Henri Cili, editor of the magazine Shqip.

“The right-wing opposition parties, on the other hand, have to rely only on pathetic state financing.”

Mentor Nazarako, a newspaper columnist and former spokesperson for ex-president Rexhep Mejdani, agreed.

“The left-wing candidates in power, who administer taxes and customs, have used these public funds to finance their campaigns,” he said.

The Socialists deny these claims. However, they lost some public face when one of their candidates, Andis Harasani, was forced to resign from his job as manager at the Albanian Energy Corporation, following complaints he used corporation money for his campaign.

Harasani later insisted that he had been victimised. “Opposition accusations that Socialists are using public funds to fund the campaign are not based on the facts,” he said.

While the two big parties slug it out, each accusing the other of gross abuses and malpractice, international observers have raised different concerns.

According to the OSCE’s international monitoring mission, the biggest problem is an inaccurate voting register.

Jurgen Grunnet, of the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, ODHIR, said the state of these lists was a worry, “as many voters’ addresses have not been identified owing to uncontrolled demographic movements”.

Grunnet was referring to the massive population shifts that have taken place in recent years, with vast numbers leaving rural Albania for Tirana and other cities.

Other international organisations prefer to draw attention to the consequences that irregular elections could have for Albania’s future.

Freedom House, the US-based NGO that supports democratic change, published a report on Albanian on June 15 that contained a number of dire predictions.

“If these elections don’t fulfil international standards, Albania’s fragile democracy could experience riots and crisis,” it said.

Suela Musta is a regular BIRN contributor. BIRN is a localised IWPR project.