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

Kosovo: Pressure Grows for Reform

The international's community reluctance to change electoral procedures has angered rights activists.
By Nicole Farnsworth

Kosovars have staged a series of protests in Pristina and three other towns to demand that the United Nations Mission in Kosovo, UNMIK, reform the protectorate's electoral system.

Reform 2004 - a coalition representing 300 non-governmental organisations from across Kosovo - is rallying to influence UNMIK Special Representative Harry Holkeri's decision regarding open and closed list electoral systems. The model the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, OSCE, has recommended to Holkeri favours the latter.

In the current closed system, a voter chooses a specific party for the area in which he or she lives - not a named candidate - and the leader of the party then selects which member will represent the area in parliament.

The coalition is pressing for an open system, in which new electoral zones would be drawn up, and where the candidate's name would appear alongside the party on the ballot cards, allowing voters to select who they believe will represent them best.

With Kosovo's final political status set to be decided in the next three years, civil society representatives believe that the November 2004 election is key to the protectorate's democratic future.

Leon Malazogu, a Reform 2004 organiser, told IWPR that if reforms were not implemented for this year's ballot, it was likely that Kosovars would be stuck with the closed list system for many years to come.

"If we wait until the next elections in 2008, local leaders will have far more power to make decisions and it is highly unlikely that the vast majority of deputies who gained power through the closed lists will be in favour of changing to a system that empowers the voters," he said.

Igballe Rugova, executive director of the Kosovo Women's Network, added that civil society groups were in favour of the open system as they wanted "to know who to hold accountable".

Last September, Reform 2004 drafted a model for a new election system and presented it to the OSCE Election Work Group.

The OSCE, which is responsible for designing and implementing Kosovo's electoral procedures, recently submitted the group's suggested system to Holkeri, who is to make a final decision in consultation with UN Secretary General Kofi Annan in due course.

However, Reform 2004 and three Kosovar women's networks have voiced their displeasure with the proposed system - which favours the status quo - and have written to Holkeri, Annan, OSCE mission head Paschal Fieschi to request a meeting.

But Holkeri's special assistant Irmeli Seipajarvi has ruled out any meeting between her boss and the NGO coalition, arguing that the decision was taken in consultation with the OSCE.

Reform 2004 dispute this, arguing that representatives of civil society did not have an adequate voice within the OSCE working group.

Argjentina Grazhdani a representative of the Kosovar Women's Lobby, is convinced that the OSCE working group is "only paying lip service to the process of democratisation", claiming that the outcome was known from the beginning as the protectorate's political parties were "over-represented".

But Lars Lagergren, director of the OSCE elections department denied this.

"Civil society had representatives in the election working group and they were certainly consulted, as the OSCE is only an administrator, not the decision maker," he said.

However, out of four NGOs that took part, only HandiKos - which represents the interests of handicapped people - had the right to vote in the group.

Coalition members have put the OSCE group's recommendation not to change the system from a closed to an open list down to apathy.

To transform the procedure into an open ballot system, Kosovo would have to be divided into regional districts, new voter lists would have to be compiled, and the actual process of counting votes would become very time-consuming.

Dardan Velija, who heads the Kosovar Documentation Institute, said, "Changing the system is a labour-intensive process and it is far less hassle to keep the status quo. But the easy way out is not always the best one."

But the OSCE's Lagergren said, "It has nothing to do with laziness - but time is running out to put another electoral system in place."

The election working group also argued that lengthy ballot papers could confuse voters, and that new voting districts could lead to disagreements regarding fair representation. It added that the open system - where a candidate's name was clearly printed on the ballot - could lead to fewer women deputies being returned.

The current closed list system guarantees women 30 seats in parliament, while Reform 2004's suggestion would be to have a guaranteed 21 seats.

Women's network representatives said they were willing to lose a few seats in parliament for the price of having more accountable members of parliament chosen through open lists.

Edita Tahiri of the ruling Democratic League of Kosovo, LDK, is convinced that the open lists would result in a better parliamentary deputies, as voters will choose politicians who they have confidence in.

"Open lists will ensure a rise in the quality of the deputies, be they men or women, and this will guarantee more efficient functioning of our institutions of Kosovo - which is crucial in this strategic phase of defining final status," she said.

The resolution of Kosovo's final status will depend largely upon the ability of Kosovo's self-governing institutions to demonstrate responsibility, accountability and transparency to international governing bodies.

Yet representatives of Kosovo's civil society argue that if OSCE and UNMIK really want to establish a democratic society in Kosovo, they should allow citizens a greater role in the decision-making process.

This includes allowing Kosovars to hold their elected officials accountable through an open list electoral system. "They teach us democracy," said Igballe Rogova. "But if they decide [our electoral system] for us, it is a dictatorship."

Nicole Farnsworth is an IWPR contributor based in Pristina.

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