2nd July 2017
By Andreas Kiær
Albania used to be the ”North Korea” of Europe.
During the SILBA EOM mission to Tirana, Albania in June of 2017, we were told this quote several times, when people would explain Albania’s history to us. With this in mind, it’s easy to understand why Albania today hasn’t developed into a modern European welfare state quite yet. During almost five decades from the 1940’s until the beginning of the 1990s Albania was completely closed off from the outside world and was ruled by the communist dictator Enver Hoxha. During his reign Albania became allies with fellow communist dictator-states in Yugoslavia, Soviet Union and China, but denounced them one by one for not being real communists. This meant that Albania for many years did not have an ally and was left even more isolated. After Hoxha’s death in 1985 and the fall of communism in 1991, Albania started its way towards becoming a democratic state and the country has evolved a lot since then, but there is still a long way to go.
During my stay in Albania, I was only in the capital Tirana, which has a mix of many old worn-down buildings from the communist era, and a few modern buildings mostly hotels and shopping malls. It was striking how few tourists there were in Tirana, and how little the local population paid attention to us being there. The locals were always very helpful and interested in helping us, should we need any assistance and the city seemed in general very relaxed and safe.
The opposition in Albania had boycotted the parliament since February 2017 and had refused to register for the original election date, which were the 18. June, due to discontent with the way prime minister Edi Rama and his party The Socialist Party had been running government. After a three-hour long meeting between the opposition leader Lulzim Basha and Edi Rama, the election was postponed a week until the 25. June. As part of this compromise, the opposition were granted the position of ”technical” vice prime minister, 6 ministers and were also put in charge of the central electoral commission until the election. This decision had the rather strange side effect that the election campaign was almost none existing in the streets of Tirana. There were a couple of political rallies where politicians spoke, but no posters or political venues in the streets.
On election day, we were divided into groups of two SILBA members and a translator. Since we were only in the capital, we were on foot all day. A few groups had to take a taxi once in a while to get to their designated polling stations. The day was the warmest day of the year so far, hitting 36 degrees midday, so one of the most important jobs were to keep ourselves hydrated. Each group were supposed to find a polling station to observe the opening procedures, visit 10-12 polling stations during the day and find a polling station to observe the closing procedures. After the closing, each group of observers were supposed to follow the ballots to the counting station, and observe the counting.
Each polling station had 200-1000 voters, and this meant that there were a lot of polling stations. Many polling stations were located in the same building, for example in a school, which would then house around 8-10 polling stations. At most of the polling stations that I observed, the procedures were followed and the elections seemed to be going according to plan. There were minor issues, for example where officials wasn’t aware of the correct procedures or where the polling booths were located in a position so people from a nearby window could see the cast of the vote, but all in all the election went well, as so far to my observations.
During the closing procedures, the closing time was postponed with one hour due to low attendance. This lead to some unrest, but was generally accepted. When the polling station closed, the officials started counting unused ballots and number of registered voters. In the polling station where I was observing, there was a difference of one ballot which seemed to be missing. This caused a lot of arguments and re-counting among the officials. After about 2 ½ hours in a room that kept getting more and more hot, the officials decided that the ballot had been lost, and closed the station. After the station finally was closed the ballots were brought to the counting station, which was located in the same building on another floor, under police protection. Due to late arrival of many of the ballots, the counting didn’t start as planned and kept being postponed. Several observer groups were told that counting would not begin until 02 am or 04 am and at ours counting centre, they couldn’t give us any deadline but kept telling us to come back in 30 min. The SILBA coordinators then decided that our mission would end after the closing procedures. A few other observer groups did observe the counting in other counting centres, which they described as chaotic and difficult to assess due to crowdedness.
All in all, this mission was a great experience, and I got to know a country, which I in advance had almost no knowledge about.