By Erl Murati
Weeks after the May 8th local elections, residents of Tirana are still unsure who their mayor will be. With the outcome muddied by a dispute over ballot counting, the country’s main political parties are trading accusations, and the case has turned into a legal battle.
Incumbent Edi Rama — leader of the Socialist Party — has been mayor for 11 years, and initially appeared to have eked out a ten-vote victory in the race against challenger Lulzim Basha. That result, however, was overturned following a Central Election Commission decision to count ballots that voters had placed in the wrong boxes.
When those votes were included, it was Basha who held the lead.
“The football equivalent of the new counting rules is that of a referee blowing the whistle, one team goes to the changing rooms, while the other stays on the field and keeps scoring until the win,” opposition co-ordinator Erjon Veliaj told SETimes, charging that Prime Minister Sali Berisha’s government had interfered in the outcome.
“This does not work in a democracy; rules are not changed at the end of the game. Clearly, for Berisha fair-play is an oxymoron,” he added.
The left is boycotting parliament and warning of popular revolt if the Electoral College, a body of judges dealing with process legitimacy, declares Basha the winner.
Berisha’s Democrats, meanwhile, say the Socialists are undermining the rule of law and are holding the country’s EU prospects hostage.
“Rhetoric about recognition of lawful state and protests are a bad rehearsal for the SP leader himself and the results he will achieve will be the same that he achieved up until now — a political loss,” ruling party MP Mesila Doda told SETimes.
At the crux of the debate is a legal question. As former Constitutional Court Chairman Fehmi Abdiu explains, the Electoral Code does not specify what should happen with ballots that were cast in the wrong boxes.
“Lawmakers in parliament have to think about this situation. But now we have a precedent,” Abdiu told SETimes.
In previous elections, miscast ballots were not considered valid, says Professor Igli Totozani.
“We have a legal vacuum and, in this case, we should consider previous elections, when these votes were considered not valid. Now they are changing the rules. Of course, this can be done, but rule changing should happen with consensus, not cards,” he told SETimes.
The mayoral dispute is the latest twist in a lengthy political impasse between the ruling party and opposition, dating back the last round of general elections in June 2009.
The Socialists, charging that irregularities took place during that vote, have staged a series of parliamentary boycotts and held street protests in front of the government offices.
With parliament tied up over the dispute, Albania’s EU prospects have floundered.
On May 14th and 15th, the European Parliament discussed and approved a resolution on the Albanian crisis, appealing to both parties for dialogue. European Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fuele said he was worried about the situation and invited all parties to solve the crisis.
“A nationwide consensus is needed. If democracy won’t function, it will have consequences for the EU integration. The perspective is not optimistic. We are the last country in the region and there is currently no hope of gaining EU candidate status,” Ermelinda Meksi, head of parliament’s Integration Committee, told SETimes.