Following the news every day can be exhausting at the best of times, even when there isn’t a pandemic playing havoc with our lives.
So as we approach yet another round of elections, we don’t blame you if you feel like switching all phone notifications off, shutting down your laptop and avoiding the 24/7 news headlines like… well, the plague.
But while it might all be a bit too much to follow along in real time with the familiar rollercoaster of promises, debates and scandals, it doesn’t mean you don’t want to stay informed.
That’s why, each week until election day on February 14, we’re bringing you the “highlights” (and “lowlights”) of the past seven days.
What happened last week? Click here to catch up
The campaigning is now all but over for another election, but there’s still plenty to catch up with from the past seven days…
In Kosovo’s first election campaign to take place during a pandemic, campaigning politicians have had a tangible opportunity to practice what they preach about keeping citizens safe from the virus. It’s perhaps little surprise that the overwhelming majority have passed up the opportunity.
Despite thousands of euros in fines and their very own promises to take care of citizens’ health, all of the major parties and their leading politicians have continued to throw caution to the wind by putting at risk the health of the very same people they vow to protect once in power.
Ignoring the pleas of health experts, parties have continued to hold mass rallies — often indoors with no distancing or masks — this week in the final days of the campaign.
“Since the beginning of the pre-election campaign, the anti-covid measures have not been respected by the political parties.”
On Monday, the Ombudsperson Institution issued a reaction reiterating that institutions and political parties are obliged to respect measures aimed at countering the spread of COVID-19.
“Since the beginning of the pre-election campaign, the anti-covid measures have not been respected by the political parties, while on the other hand, the institutions that are obliged to implement these measures have not reacted,” reads the reaction. “This is a double standard that can not be tolerated and violates the equality of citizens before the law.”
The Ministry of Health has published just one statement on its website and Facebook page this week — criticizing individuals for misinterpreting its communications — while in recent weeks outgoing Minister of Health Armend Zemaj has posted pictures of himself in apparent breach of COVID-19 rules at LDK election rallies.
Another unsurprising course of events involves political debates in the lead up to Sunday’s election. TV debates between journalists, commentators, analysts and deputy candidates are ubiquitous, but this campaign is set to close without a debate between prime ministerial candidates.
Any direct debate would spoil the time-honored tradition where candidates who appear to have the upper hand refuse to debate their rivals. Civil society organizations have long urged candidates to break with it and to confront each other’s governing plans in a direct debate, insisting that such exposure to scrutiny is essential for the development of democratic electoral processes.
However as polling day approaches, political parties have increasingly resorted to their tried-and-tested formulas of elections past.
For LDK, that means reaching for the legacy of Ibrahim Rugova, founding member of the party and first president of Kosovo who — 15 years after his death — is still widely revered for having led the Kosovar Albanian peaceful resistance during the ’90s and Kosovo’s subsequent journey toward statehood.
In an electoral meeting on Sunday, the party’s prime ministerial candidate Avdullah Hoti turned to history, attempting to contrast his party’s past with that of former partner-turned-rival Vetëvendosje (VV).
“We are proud of our political history. We are proud of President Rugova and his journey that we are following today, while our opponents have been on the opposite side of Rugova and the state of Kosovo,” he said. “Today they [VV] have engaged dozens of IT [people] to hide from the public their statements against democracy and against the processes that led to the formation of the state of Kosovo.”
VV has insisted that it will not form a coalition with anyone else and therefore needs to secure an overall majority of 61 deputies.
The statement was a reference to LDK allegations that VV’s concerns about its past stances as a radical and nationalist movement catching up with them may have led them to erase portions of their online presence from their formative years.
For the “war wing” parties — PDK, AAK, and Nisma — the main rivalry comes down to which one can uphold the values of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) better than the other.
PDK’s prime ministerial candidate Enver Hoxhaj told constituents in KLA heartland Skenderaj: “Do not let anyone divide Drenica, because whoever is KLA [is] for PDK.”
AAK’s deputy candidate Time Kadrijaj, who served as a KLA doctor during the war, has previously insisted that her party is the only true party when it comes to representing the KLA: “It’s strange to hear the PDK of 2021 when it talks about the KLA, when in their composition and in their list of deputies, much less those who speak on behalf of the PDK, the values of the war are not even close to being found.”
VV, a party known for its past “red lines” when it comes to potential coalitions with PDK, has this time insisted that it will not form a coalition with anyone else and therefore needs to secure an overall majority of 61 deputies. In an online chat with citizens on Sunday, party Leader Albin Kurti said: “We don’t need any coalition because there’s no one to form one with.”
Get with the program
As the parties completed their final campaign commitments this week, there was little of any real substance revealed in terms of party programs.
VV did become the final major party to publish its written program after leader Albin Kurti verbally set out his party’s promises last week, but policy discussion has not been top of the party’s agenda as it continues to push its anti-corruption ticket.
One area that continued to remain conspicuous by its absence on the campaign trails was the Kosovo-Serbia dialogue. After the topic played such a key role in bringing down the Kurti-led government that was elected last time Kosovars went to the polls, all parties have seemed reluctant to get into the sticky issue this time around.
With meaningful policy proposals in all fields largely lacking from political parties, K2.0 this week asked a wide range of experts to reimagine the future and to suggest the changes required to get there. In our “A Different Perspective” series, we’ve taken a closer look at aspirations for: our health; our education; our environment; art and culture; rule of law; foreign policy; transitional justice; our economy; and the rights of women and LGBTQ+ persons.
Too good to be true?
PDK continued to push its “recovery” election theme this week — recovery in education, recovery in agriculture, recovery for every village and town. What’s been less clear is exactly what the promised recovery is from.
For many, it’s been a strange choice of slogan for a party that has spent more time in power than any other since the war — including 12 of the 13 years since Kosovo’s independence.
But if anyone thought this may mean a genuine attempt to draw a line under the party’s past, which has been dogged by persistent corruption scandals, they have been quickly corrected.
PDK’s election rallies have often included videos paying homage to Hashim Thaçi and Kadri Veseli, the party’s leading figures over the past two decades, who are currently defending war crimes charges in The Hague. PDK’s TV adverts have also focused on its two former leaders in a move that seems somewhat at odds with its “Only PDK can move Kosovo forward” and “recovery” mantras.
They said WHAT?
As Sunday gets closer, campaigning politicians have strayed further and further away from actual programs, clinging instead to populist invocations of the past, unfeasible promises and general hot air.
Acting prime minister Hoti’s statement on Thursday at a gathering in Prishtina may have taken the biscuit as he appeared to suggest that families should all vote for the same party en masse.
“We as LDK have not faced evil in time; I know we had to stop them [VV] in 2008 and 2009 when they went to high schools and gave lectures to children,” he said. “Today, 20-year-olds, boys and girls, students or graduates, have caused trouble even within families — a 20-year-old boy and girl parting their vote from their mother’s, father’s, grandmother’s and grandfather’s.”
AAK’s leader Haradinaj has also been grappling with legacy, this time his own. In an interview on KTV, he seemed to acknowledge that his infamous decision as prime minister in 2017-19 to have a cabinet of five deputy prime ministers and over 80 deputy ministers may have been over the top.
Behgjet Pacolli said the promise is “extremely possible” and that it is in AKR's election program — a look at the party’s published program suggests it is not.
“There should not be a large number of deputy ministers like [I had] at the time because it is not right,” he said, adding perplexingly, “but we should not think that we will help Kosovo if we downsize the government.”
Meanwhile, candidate for AKR (which is running in a joint list with LDK) Islam Pacolli has reached for the sky with his promise to give women 10,000 euros when they give birth. Asked how they plan to do this by the interviewer on Kanal10, he responded: “How? From the state budget, that’s how. It’s simple.”
AKR’s leader, international businessman turned politician Behgjet Pacolli, later doubled down on his fellow party member’s promise, saying the promise is “extremely possible” and that it’s in their election program — a look at the party’s published election program suggests it is not.
The voting process for members of Kosovo’s diaspora has been filled with controversy since it was first announced.
The Ombudsperson Institution announced this week that it had received various complaints related to different aspects of the diaspora voting process. These mainly concerned the verification of applications — after a new telephone verification step was introduced this year — delays in uploading and difficulties in downloading ballots, non-inclusion in the voters list and the initial refusal of the Elections Complaints and Appeals Panel (ECAP) to receive complaints via email.
Minister of Foreign Affairs Meliza Haradinaj Stublla has been accused of being disingenuous for issuing a call for the diaspora to vote just four days before the deadline.
The Ombudsperson also urged the Central Election Commission (CEC) to review the deadline for receiving votes from abroad to ensure that nobody is denied the right to vote. The deadline for receiving postal ballots is Friday (February 12), although many members of the diaspora have complained that the 10-day window for posting their ballots is too short, particularly given disruptions to global post services caused by the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic.
The British Embassy in Kosovo, which has launched its own high profile monitoring mission for the elections, has also raised concern over the issues with diaspora voting, which it says have been largely caused by a failure to change the law to allow a longer voting window.
“As in previous elections, this process has not been perfect,” the Embassy wrote in a statement on Monday. “Previous EU Election Observation Missions have recommended that the law be changed in order to allow more time for pre-electoral processes to take place. That has not happened and the timeframe for these snap elections is even shorter than normal, putting pressure on the CEC and creating risks that not all ballots cast overseas will arrive on time.”
Meanwhile, Minister of Foreign Affairs Meliza Haradinaj Stublla has been accused of being disingenuous for issuing a call for the diaspora to vote, and explaining how, on February 8, six days after the voting window opened and just four days before the deadline.
Acting Prime Minister Hoti has failed to fulfil his promise to repeal an administrative instruction issued by the Ministry of Trade and Industry that creates a monopoly in the oil market. Kallxo.com reported that Hoti requested the acting minister, Nisma’s Vesel Krasniqi, to repeal it on two occasions but that he has yet to do so.
On January 29 Hoti told a press conference: “I have it … from the legal office that the administrative instruction is not in accordance with the law and I have sent a letter to the minister to cancel this instruction. The deadline was January 21 — since this did not happen, I will put it on the agenda for a vote by the government.”
Separately, in an unusual show of caution toward COVID-19, on Wednesday the Ministry of Internal Affairs announced it had decided to temporarily suspend all but essential services offered by the Civil Registration Agency’s Document Supply Center in Prishtina. According to the Agency, the decision to close the center where citizens are provided with ID and passports came because “several officials tested positive with COVID-19.”
“Until the completion of the process for testing this Center’s staff, all application services for supplying documents can be done through the Document Supply Centers in the Region of Prishtina (Podujeva, Graçanica, Fushë Kosova, Obiliq, Lipjan, Drenas) or in the other nearest Centers in the territory of the Republic of Kosovo,” reads the announcement.
Since the middle of last week citizens have reported that they have been unable to find officials responsible for application services in the Agency and a notification on the door read that the center was not operating due to COVID-related reasons.
With two days to go until elections, the government decided on Thursday to partially ease restrictions intended to contain the COVID-19 pandemic.
The 21:30 curfew that has been in force in “red zone” municipalities (those with the most COVID-19 cases) has been lifted, and economic operators in these areas may now work for an extra hour in the evening — until 22:00.
The number of people allowed at outdoor gatherings has been increased from 50 to 80, and the number permitted at gatherings indoors — where the virus spreads more easily — has been extended from 30 to 50. Weddings and family parties remain banned.
The number of COVID-19 cases described as “active” by the NIPH has continued to rise steadily this week.
The government also confirmed it has decided that higher education students should return to in-person classes — an agreement first announced by the Students’ Parliament of the University of Prishtina last Wednesday.
In its decision, the government stated that it was easing restrictions based on recommendations given by the National Institute of Public Health (NIPH).
But other health experts quickly voiced their opposition to the decision, including the head of the Ministry of Health’s own Advisory Board for combating COVID-19. Microbiologist Lul Raka said in a Facebook post that neither he nor any other member of the Advisory Board was consulted about the decision and that he was against easing the measures at this time.
“‘[A]ny political easing of the measures’ enables the spread of infection in the community threatening public and individual health in Kosovo,” wrote Raka, who pointed to the presence in Kosovo of the more transmissible “British variant” of the virus.
The Kosovo Federation of Health Care Unions also expressed its dismay at the decision, labeling it “scandalous” and “unacceptable.” “To make it worse, no political party is reacting … political parties are not prioritizing public health, only their votes,” the union said.
The number of COVID-19 cases described as “active” by the NIPH has continued to rise steadily this week to 7,041 by Friday (February 12).
Friday also saw 372 new cases of the virus officially reported — the highest number of new cases recorded in a single day for over two weeks — and 6 deaths. Twenty-one people are officially recorded as having died with COVID-19 in the past seven days.
Meanwhile, the CEC announced that it has established a voting process for people with COVID-19 and those in self-isolation that will see mobile teams visit them at home.K
If you are planning to vote on Sunday, remember your mask and keep your distance.
Feature image: Arrita Katona / K2.0.