Protest in Belgrade, April 2019; Photo: Tanjug / Tanja Valić

The year 2019 began with the strong anti-government protests that shook Albania, Montenegro and Serbia. It is ending with mostly unsuccessful talks between government and opposition about electoral conditions in all three countries.

Opposition Democratic Party of Albania decided to boycott the local elections this June after leaving parliament in February. Most of their relevant counterparts in Serbia have committed themselves to the boycott of both the parliament and general election in spring 2020, demanding a technical government and at least nine months of unbiased media coverage and absence of pressure on voters. Similar model was implemented in Montenegro three years ago, but the country still has many issues with the electoral conditions, evidenced by the failure of the Committee on the Reform of Electoral Laws to fulfill its purpose.

Situation in Albania, Montenegro and Serbia is playing out very similarly. Even though the processes of electoral reform are ongoing in all three Western Balkan countries, they are plagued by the lack of trust between the government and the opposition, resulting in numerous setbacks and delays. While the EU, OSCE and other representatives of international community are trying to help mediate the situation, nobody seems to be satisfied with the current results.

Deterioration of the democracy

Thousands of people went to the streets of Podgorica earlier this year following the surfacing of the “Envelope” affair, in which the former mayor of the capital of Montenegro was caught on camera accepting a large amount of money, supposedly for influencing the election results in his constituency.

“Elections in Montenegro are anything but a fair and democratic expression of citizens’ will. At the moment, this can be argued with certainty, because such a claim has been substantiated more and more by numerous pieces of evidence in support of corruption, crime and violence influencing the free and democratic expression of citizens in recent decades”, says for EWB Bojan Jevrić, Head of the Media Team of URA, an opposition movement in the country.

Protests in Podgorica; Photo: Twitter/@citydiplomat

According to him, the “Envelope” affair has proven that the ruling Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) is using nepotism, discrimination and clientelism to abuse state resources. He also accuses the DPS for occasionally resorting to physical violence against opposition activists.

Similar accusations are directed against the government of Prime Minister Edi Rama, the leader of the Socialist Party of Albania. Genc Pollo, member of the opposition Democratic Party and former government minister, reminds for EWB that the wiretaps published this year by the German daily Bild feature the Prime Minister involved in what seems to be the case of vote buying.

“If you are hopeful this was an isolated case, there are other wiretaps from a prosecution file showing how a local drug cartel, the Avdylajs, which operated in Central Europe, called the Socialist mayor of Durrës to coordinate vote buying and voter intimidation during the 2017 general elections”, Pollo stresses.

According to him, Albania’s pluralist elections in the last three decades have rarely been perfect, but vote buying and organized crime have only recently become a top concern.

“It shouldn’t be a surprise that the opposition sees in the cases above just the tip of the iceberg. Many more stories of horizontal vote-buying and other abuse have circulated, yet not investigated and therefore still uncorroborated by judicial evidence”, Pollo says.

The evidence for direct buying of votes is missing in Serbia as well. However, opposition gathered in the Alliance for Serbia (SzS) coalition believes that it has enough evidence to demonstrate that the conditions for free and fair elections do not exist in the country.

While presenting his case in the European Parliament earlier this month, leader of the Freedom and Justice Party Dragan Đilas pointed out that none of the SzS leaders were invited to a commercial television with national coverage since 2016 elections and gave the examples of several citizens of Serbia who lost their job for not supporting the Serbian Progressive Party.

That the pressure on voters in Serbia is widespread was also assessed by political scientist Boban Stojanović in a recent statement for EWB.

“They have gone so far that the votes have to be provided through private companies and civil society organisations as well, and submission is expected, as well as limitation of any public speech critical of the government. The voters are demanded to prove that they have voted for the party”, he said.

In addition to complaints by the opposition members, international organisations have also detected that the recent elections in Albania, Montenegro and Serbia have failed to reach the full standards of democracy. OSCE missions in each country stressed the lingering issues of unbalanced media coverage and political influence on the outlets, as well as numerous technical shortcomings that leave enough space for potential abuses. According to Freedom in the World Index by Freedom House, none of these countries are considered to be “free”.

Ill-fated negotiations

The fact that the process of electoral reform is currently ongoing in Podgorica, Tirana and Belgrade is a clear indicator that the conditions are far from perfect. However, the lack of trust between the actors is huge in all three Western Balkan countries. How similar the situation in each of them is shows the fact that neither of the government’s chosen representative in the talks enjoys trust from opposition.

In Montenegro, it was the ruling party member Branimir Gvozdnevoić who chaired the Committee on Comprehensive Reform of Electoral and Other Legislation. According to Bojan Jevrić from URA movement, he is the last person who should be in charge of the process due to his (alleged) involvement in various corruption affairs.

The Committee concluded its work on 18 December, without a quorum to decide on the amendments to the electoral laws, so the government submitted its versions of the laws to the parliament. In what the EU described as a “missed opportunity”, opposition MPs decided to boycott the work of the Committee through most of its mandate. Members of the Democratic Montenegro (“the Democrats”) Party returned to the body in the early fall, but decided to boycott the final session once again after the government submitted a controversial law on religion to the parliament.

“It is now quite clear that the DPS escaped electoral reform by failing to respond to 16 legislative projects and over 200 concrete decisions by the Democrats and other opposition colleagues”, reads the official statement of the leader of the Democratic Montenegro Aleksa Bečić.

URA movement, on the other hand, states for EWB that it did not see the point of participating in the Committee in the first place.

“Prior to the beginning of the Committee’s work, the opposition had to jointly submit a request to the DPS to form a technical government. If the DPS was not ready to accept this, the opposition should have said – thank you and goodbye. This is how we lost months without stepping back from the initial position of general distrust of the state institutions and the electoral process itself”, Jevrić said.

In Albania, Parliamentary Special Commission for Electoral Reform is scheduled to complete its mandate by February. Its work also suffered from the lack of trust, personalised by the co-chair Damian Gjiknuri, whom the opposition denounced as one of the key Socialist Party officials involved in election rigging.

The Commission has met in September and November, with the participation of OSCE representatives. Following the first meeting of the two meetings, Blerjana Bino, Visiting Researcher at the Department of Informatics and Media at the Uppsala University, highlighted the problems of establishing fair electoral conditions in the country.

“The disagreement between the two parties is more about the approach towards electoral reform, rather than its content. The DPA argues that real electoral reform should be carried out by institutions or electoral subjects that are willing to guarantee free and fair elections and are not subject to investigations”, Bino said for EWB in October.

Democratic Party Leader Lulzim Basha addresses EPP Plenary in Zagreb; Photo: Flickr / European People’s Party

Genc Pollo confirms that the united opposition is engaged in presenting a full proposal in the electoral reform process.

“The ruling party has been stalling the process, unable to accept a significant role for the opposition in the consultative and legislative process”, he stresses.

Nowhere are the troubles of establishing trust more apparent than in Serbia, where the European Parliament decided to intervene directly and mediate the process of talks on electoral reform. Following the three meetings in Belgrade, there has been progress, mostly concerning the changes of several laws preventing the politicians to abuse public resources in the campaign, as well as government’s commitment to change the membership of the Council of the Regulatory Body for Electronic Media (REM).

For opposition in the Alliance for Serbia, this is far from satisfactory. As the only opposition actor continuously polling above 5% threshold, it remains committed to the boycott of the elections, refusing to participate in the dialogue held in the National Assembly and co-chaired by the Speaker and ruling party member Maja Gojković, who, in their eyes, lacks credibility, much like Gvozdenović in Montenegro and Gjiknuri in Albania. SzS has instead met with EP mediators separately.

“The fact that something is adopted as a rule, as an institution, as a law in Serbia – that does not mean that it is going to be implemented”, Boban Stojanović, who is also a member of the expert team for electoral conditions, set up by the Alliance for Serbia, commented for EWB.

Problems with fostering trust continue outside of the talks on electoral reform as well. At the time when the government of Albania is trying to show that it is willing to cooperate on election reform, it also adopted a highly controversial “anti-libel package” of laws which the opposition, journalists and international community representatives criticised for its potential to penalise critical media.

Meanwhile, in Serbia, a number of affairs involving the highest-ranking officials of the ruling Serbian Progressive Party have been unveiled in the past several months, but the only person that has so far suffered consequences was one of the whistle-blowers, who spent three months in prison and house arrest. The majority of national media have downplayed or ignored the affairs.

The situation seems dire for those hoping for a breakthrough and currently there is no compromise in sight.

On a path towards a political crisis

Serbia will be a litmus test for the rest of the region – its parliamentary election must take place by the first weekend of May. Alliance for Serbia, as well as other smaller parties committed to boycott, claim that there is no time. The solution they expect are snap elections that would follow the regular ones, after the fair conditions have been established.

“We are in December. There is not enough time. We have proposed our solutions for fair elections a year ago”, stated Vice President of Freedom and Justice Party Marinika Tepić for Istinomer on 18 December.

EP mediators and Parliament Speaker Maja Gojković in Belgrade; Photo: EU Delegation to Serbia

As it becomes increasingly apparent that Serbia will suffer its first election boycott by a major political player since 1997 and the regime of Slobodan Milošević, the question is what will happen in Montenegro, which is expected to hold parliamentary elections in the fall.

URA movement is also considering boycott as an option, Jevrić confirmed for European Western Balkans.

“If the DPS does not want such a thing, opposition should boycott the elections with protests that would accompany the boycott, and the DPS could go to the polls on its own”, he says.

Other members of the opposition in Montenegro, including the largest opposition coalition Democratic Front and the Democrats, have also refused to exclude boycott as one of the options.

General elections in Albania are not due until 2021, and the Democratic Party has not taken a definitive position yet.

“The understanding is that elections should follow suit once the reform is completed. The million-dollar question remains whether the laws would be faithfully implemented by the authorities. As the OSCE lately observed, even the old legislation is good enough for good elections if it was properly observed and implemented”, Genc Pollo concludes for our portal.

European Union had to resolve one political crisis in the Western Balkans in the recent past, in a country then known as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. It now faces potential crises on multiple fronts. How serious is its willingness to get involved will depend on how high the enlargement process is on its agenda.