Macedonia: Poll Violence Concerns

Albanian parties are being closely watched in the run-up to local elections.

Macedonia: Poll Violence Concerns

Albanian parties are being closely watched in the run-up to local elections.

Ahead of campaigning for local elections early next month, international observers have warned ethnic Albanian political parties to ensure that they refrain from inciting the sort of violence that has marred previous ballots.

Analysts say international officials are worried that trouble may break out because the parties will be competing for high stakes. The March 13 ballot is the first since the introduction of new laws granting municipalities considerably greater powers.

The elections are seen as especially important for Albanian parties as a new map of the country based on ethnic composition means that they have a chance of winning power in 16 municipalities out of a total of a total of 84. They used to be in charge of slightly more but these were much smaller in size.

The decentralisation reform, the last key provision of the Ohrid peace deal that ended inter-communal violence in 2001, was approved by parliament last summer triggering ethnic Macedonian opposition demands for a controversial referendum on the issue.

The decentralisation laws shift authority and control over a range of services from central government to the municipalities.

Mayors and city councils will now make decisions on education, health, construction, local economic development, culture and sports. They will also have a degree of financial autonomy, as some tax revenues will be channeled into local rather than central budgets.

Political analyst Hisen Ramadani told IWPR that the “greater competences of the local authorities will be highly motivating for the Albanian parties in these elections”.

Another factor that may provoke inter-party feuding is that the Democratic Union for Integration, DUI, will be contesting local elections for the first time, challenging its main rival the Democratic Party of Albanians, DPA, which has to date controlled municipalities where the community forms a majority.

“The DUI has no presence in local authorities. They have to win control,” said Iso Rusi, editor in chief of the Albanian weekly Lobi. “The DPA, on the other hand, wants to maintain the current situation.”

Though party rivalry is intense in the run-up to the elections, the DUI and DPA cannot afford to incite the sort of trouble that has marred previous polls, analysts say.

In a local poll in 2000, one person was killed and several others were wounded in a shootout on election day in the Albanian village of Kondovo.

Albanian parties are very much aware that these elections will be closely scrutinised by Brussels as Macedonia’s bid for European Union membership is now quite advanced.

Following Macedonia`s formal application for EU membership in 2004, it last week delivered to Brussels 14,000 pages of answers to a questionnaire on joining the union. Skopje officials hope that by the end of the year, they will receive an avis granting the country candidate status.

Abduladi Vejseli, leader of the opposition Albanian Party for Democratic Prosperity, PDP, which is in coalition with the DPA, told IWPR, “If we allow violence [to break out] in these elections it will move us away from Europe,” he said.

Gjorgji Ivanov, politics professor at Skopje University, warns that “just one incident will be enough to stain the entire elections and the image of the country”.

But ordinary Albanians fear that these elections will be no different to previous ones.

Sead Ibrahimi, a 23-year-old student from Tetovo, spoke for many locals when he told IWPR that “party activists in Albanian areas will not hesitate to use all possible means to win on March 13”.

Because of such fears, the DUI and DPA signed a declaration in mid-January vowing they will “refrain from violence and intimidation” during the campaign and on election day.

Arben Xhaferi, leader of DPA, told local media that the declaration eliminates the possibility of violence. “For us it is more important to maintain the peace than win the elections. We do not want victory if it is reached through violence and undemocratic means,” he said.

International representatives in the country and abroad have already voiced concerns of possible incidents and have openly warned Albanian parties that they will be closely watched during the election process.

Julian Peel Yates, head of the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, ODIHR, monitoring mission, has already met with Albanian opposition leaders. “We will be monitoring these elections carefully, professionally, and with great interest,” he told local media.

PDP party sources have said that Yates warned the opposition bloc that its actions will be closely observed.

While the Albanian parties have promised to refrain from incitement, some doubt whether they will be able to control events on the ground.

Vlado Popovski, law professor at Skopje University and former government minister, warned, “The [Albanian] declaration does not guarantee fair play during the vote. It will apply only to the levels that political leaders can control.”

Popovski believes that some local party activists may ignore the wishes of their leaders.

And Ramadani echoed these sentiments, “The stakes are high for Albanian parties in these elections. Therefore, it can not be excluded that certain groups or individuals will try to intimidate the electorate.”

Muhamed Zekiri is a journalist with Radio Free Europe in Skopje.

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