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’ll be bringing you the “highlights” (and “lowlights”) of the past seven days.
After last week’s decision by the Central Election Commission (CEC) not to certify the candidate lists of Vetëvendosje (VV), the Alliance for the Future of Kosovo (AAK) and Nisma, this week was always going to be all about appeals.
On Monday (January 25), the Elections Complaints and Appeals Panel (ECAP) noted that it had received nine complaints from seven political entities, and 24 hours later it announced its decisions.
Grabbing all the headlines was its decision not to overturn the exclusion of VV’s leader and nominated prime ministerial candidate, Albin Kurti, or that of four other VV deputy candidates with recent criminal convictions. The ECAP decision stated that the rest of VV’s list should be certified, but the five uncertified candidates could not be replaced as the deadline for doing so has passed.
The Kurti controversy
Vetëvendosje’s popular party leader Albin Kurti was given a suspended 18 month prison sentence by the Basic Court of Prishtina in January 2018 after he and others leading party figures were found guilty of using offensive weapons.
The four deputies were convicted for setting off tear gas in the Assembly in 2015 as they tried to stop a controversial border deal with Montenegro and the establishment of an Association of Serb Majority Municipalities.
The Basic Court’s decision was subsequently upheld by the Court of Appeals in September 2018 and the decision became final.
At the time of the conviction, the Criminal Code of Kosovo stated that “legal consequences of the punishment cannot be created” for suspended sentences. However, a new Criminal Code that came into force in 2019 no longer contains that provision.
In its December 2020 decision that led to the upcoming snap elections, Kosovo’s Constitutional Court pointed to Article 29.1(q) of the Law on General Elections. This stipulates that individuals are ineligible to be certified as election candidates if they have been found guilty of a criminal offence by a final court decision in the past three years.
VV appealed ECAP’s decision to the Supreme Court, which on Friday (January 29) confirmed that Kurti — as well as party colleagues Albulena Haxhiu and Bajram Mavriqi — cannot run. Despite the ongoing uncertainty, ahead of the Supreme Court’s ruling Kurti and other VV representatives continued to assert that VV’s list will not change and that Kurti will remain as the party’s prime ministerial candidate.
The two other VV candidates that had been banned — Labinotë Demi-Murtezi and Liburn Aliu — will be part of the party’s list after the Supreme Court concluded that ECAP had used the wrong date to calculate the three year period within which potential candidates must not have been convicted by a final court decision. ECAP had counted back from the date that the elections were announced (January 6) instead of the date of elections (February 14).
The Supreme Court also accepted that AAK’s Shemsedin Dreshaj was an eligible candidate on the same grounds as the three approved VV candidates, but rejected the party’s appeal for three other candidates, as well as Nisma’s appeal on behalf of 12 candidates.
Further legal challenges could now be made in the Constitutional Court.
Meanwhile, legal experts have warned that the current controversies could be just the tip of the iceberg compared to what’s coming as Kosovo appears to be on track for a deep constitutional crisis that could see further snap elections in the coming months.
With the 6-month mandate of acting President Vjosa Osmani due to run out on May 5, and the post-election process of counting votes, certifying them and forming a government often extending to many months, analysis by the Balkan Policy Research Group has warned that an “institutional gap” could be on the horizon since the new Assembly might not be constituted in time to elect a new president.
Even if the post-election steps were to take place quickly, it would still be no guarantee that a president would be elected, since the vote to elect a president requires two-thirds of elected deputies to be in the chamber — if the process to elect a new president fails, new elections are triggered.
Law professor Vigan Qorrolli has suggested that new elections could be triggered even earlier — at the beginning of April — citing Article 86.2 of the Constitution, which states: “The election of the President of the Republic of Kosovo shall take place no later than thirty (30) days before the end of the current president’s term of office.”
Get with the program
LDK has not published a written program for the upcoming elections, but its prime ministerial candidate and acting prime minister Avdullah Hoti this week presented his party’s pledges. In a TV address in front of an audience of mostly party members, he announced that LDK’s program would be based on four pillars: health, education, rule of law, and development and wellbeing.
Hoti said that the first priority is vaccinations and that after having “taken the first steps in contracting the vaccines,” he is hopeful that their distribution will start in the first week of February.
Similar to PDK and AAK in previous weeks, Hoti’s LDK has been generous with the amount of money they promise to invest in the country’s economy, which has been hit hard in the wake of COVID-19. He said his government will invest 6 billion euros in the next 7 years — a seemingly arbitrary timespan — on infrastructure, highways, railroads, internet access, central heating and energy.
PDK’s prime ministerial candidate Enver Hoxhaj and former Minister of Justice Abelard Tahiri presented their program on justice “recovery” and rule of law, having previously presented their program on economic recovery. It is based on four pillars: fight against corruption and organized crime, structural reform and integrity of the judiciary, deepening reforms to coordinate and improve performance in law and order, and access to justice.
PDK has long had issues with the rule of law, having been inundated with regular corruption scandals during its time in power.
“In these elections, only PDK and VV are facing each other,” Hoxhaj said. “Indeed, in these elections facing each other are respect for the law, on the one hand, and the threat to law enforcement institutions on the other hand,” he continued, alluding to VV’s ongoing battle with the CEC over the omission of candidates with criminal convictions.
PDK has long had its own issues with the rule of law, having been inundated with regular corruption scandals during its time in power as part of various coalition governments over the past decade.
AAK’s leader Haradinaj this week referred to the elections as “a referendum for NATO membership,” which he says should take place by 2024. Joining NATO and other international organizations is one of AAK’s priorities in the foreign policy pillar of its electoral program.
It says that membership efforts will continue “regardless of the one-year moratorium for new memberships,” referring to the agreements signed in Washington D.C. last year by Hoti and Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić as part of the former Trump administration’s efforts to resume the Kosovo-Serbia dialogue.
However, the program is silent on reforming the foreign affairs domain, one that has produced a substantial chunk of corruption and nepotism scandals in recent years.
One of the most recent scandals involves the son of deputy Haxhi Shala — the decisive voter for the Hoti government after Haradinaj and then-President Thaçi paid him a late night visit the night before the vote — who was appointed Consul General in the Czech Republic with no obvious credentials or experience of working in the foreign service. The minister of foreign affairs at the time of the appointment was AAK’s Meliza Haradinaj, who herself has been the subject of scandals involving the abuse of taxpayers’ money.
Kosovo slipped three places to 104th out of 180 countries in Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index 2020.
VV, which is yet to publish a written program, has been campaigning through site visits where they have revealed some of their priorities. In the health sector they are promising to focus on insurance, the inspectorate and a comprehensive information system, in terms of the economy they are pledging to help local producers in the market, while they have also promised to take care of war victims and to facilitate the administration of justice.
With the slogan “Krejt dhe Drejt,” (Altogether and Rightly), Kurti has been calling this election a “referendum” in which citizens will decide between “old conjunctures and politicians of a new era.”
Too good to be true?
Bombastic statements are nothing new in an election campaign but Avdullah Hoti’s claims this week to have “removed the word corruption from the political discourse” always seemed to ring a little hollow.
An international report published just a few days later confirmed that citizens might not quite agree with Hoti’s assessment. After scoring exactly the same number of points as last year, Kosovo slipped three places to 104th out of 180 countries in Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index 2020.
Meanwhile, a separate promise by Hoti that an LDK government would invest in science as part of its higher education priorities “because without science there is no quality of education” also raised a few eyebrows.
The Academy of Science and Arts, Kosovo’s highest scientific institution, has been plagued by regular scandals in the past two decades, with LDK in government for three-quarters of this time. During this period, civil society monitoring reports have pointed to evidence of plagiarism by Academy members, a lack of accountability, poor performance and political ties with political parties.
Meanwhile, of the Academy’s 32 members — which include LDK leader Isa Mustafa — just four are women.
They said WHAT?
Citizens may have become desensitized to brazen statements by politicians in what sometimes seems to be a perpetual electoral campaign, but that doesn’t stop politicians trying to outdo each other with evermore hubristic words.
Such was Hoxhaj’s public message to Kurti, after the latter’s refusal of his repeated invitations to a series of electoral debates. “Albin is running away, Albin is not daring to appear in the debate because he knows that in foreign policy, domestic policy, education, economy — not now that I’m awake, but if I got woken up at two in the morning in pajamas — I’d put Albin Kurti in my pocket in every debate,” he said at a rally in Malisheva.
Another showpiece statement came from leading AAK figure and former Minister of Infrastructure Pal Lekaj. Writing on Facebook about an apparent falling-out between his party and PDK, Lekaj said:
“When you needed to stay in power and to get the votes of Mr. [Ramush] Haradinaj and Mr. [Fatmir] Limaj, you sought them out wherever they were…! Whereas today when you slipped from your identity in a ‘kullerist’ party, you say they are no longer needed in politics.”
Kuller is a derogatory slang term in Albanian, loosely translated as “wimp,” but kullerist appears to be a new word of Lekaj’s own invention.
It’s not the deputy’s first linguistic blunder in the past year. Appearing on a TV show in June 2020, he talked about Albin Kurti’s “feminist policies,” (feministe) in what he later explained was intended to be “childish policies” (fëmijërore).
The number of diaspora voters registering to take part in the upcoming elections has already surpassed previous records, with tens of thousands of applications still being processed.
As of Wednesday (January 28), the CEC said it had “entered into the system” 130,000 email applications to register for voting by mail, of which it had approved around 46,000 for the next stage verification by phone call.
That number is already higher than the 40,313 voters who were ultimately approved in the 2019 elections, which saw members of the diaspora sign up to vote in record numbers.
Those who are approved will be able to cast their votes by mail from February 2 and the envelopes will need to reach the CEC by February 12 to be eligible.
The CEC said that it had so far made about 39,000 calls to people applying to vote from outside Kosovo as part of its new verification process for diaspora voters, adding that almost one in five people called had not answered the phone and would be tried again.
The registration of voters will continue until February 1.
Those who are approved will be able to cast their votes by mail from February 2 and the envelopes will need to reach the CEC by February 12 to be eligible. However diaspora representatives have already raised concerns about the short window, especially in the current situation where there are reports of significant delays to postal deliveries due to the pandemic situation.
Following long-running talks and public ultimatums from the United Trade Union of Education, Science and Culture, last Friday (January 22) the government agreed to grant two extra payments to pre-university teachers due to their workload during the pandemic. Other agreed issues include new daily food allowances and transportation expenses.
Other unions — of firefighters, doctors and private sector workers — have called this move “discriminatory” and “political.” The head of the Healthcare Trade Union Federation, Blerim Syla, told Koha.net that he considers the payments a maneuver to gain “a handful of votes.” “To not pay doctors [undertaking training in their particular] specialization but to pay education workers is shameful and inhumane,” he said.
Separately, on Monday (January 22), VV’s Fitim Uka filed criminal charges against acting Minister of Education Ramë Likaj and two Ministry officials, alleging “abuse of official position or authority” regarding a tender of almost 3 million euros announced in November last year. According to the allegation, two weeks after publishing the original tender the Ministry of Education and Science (MES) deleted it and re-published a similar tender requiring significantly fewer products for the same amount of money.
MES issued a public reaction to the charges this week, saying that there was a technical error in the procurement procedure which they rectified before the opening of the tender.
Meanwhile, former LDK deputy candidate Valbon Krasniqi is back in the running for the position of director of the public health institution University Clinical Hospital Service of Kosovo (ShKSUK) after last week failing to make the shortlist due to insufficient managerial experience. Kallxo.com reports that a week later, the assessment for Krasniqi that previously read “lacks managerial experience as per the competition’s criteria,” now reads “meets [the criteria].”
Krasniqi was appointed acting director of ShKSUK in July 2020 after former general director Basri Sejdiu was dismissed by its board citing many violations, mismanagement and poor performance.
Political parties have continued to ignore pleas from the National Institute of Public Health to heed physical distancing measures, despite evidence that the numbers of new COVID-19 cases and deaths are both on the rise.
PDK, VV and LDK were all fined for breaching COVID rules this week after holding rallies that don’t comply with the legal measures in place. Outgoing coalition partners LDK, AAK and Nisma were already fined last week for exceeding the number of people permitted at public gatherings, even after having changed the law to allow more people to meet.
On Thursday, head of PDK in Skenderaj Sami Lushtaku posted photos on Facebook of what he said were “hundreds” of PDK supporters at an indoor rally in the town that appeared to follow no physical distancing measures. A video containing what appeared to be celebratory gunshots emerged from another crowded indoor PDK rally in Suhareka.
Meanwhile, the official number of “active” COVID-19 cases in Kosovo climbed above 6,000 this week — more than 800 higher than the same point last week — with an average of well over 300 new cases recorded each day.
The death toll also continues to rise: 40 people have died from the virus in the past 7 days (since Saturday, January 23), including a 29-year-old from Lipjan.K
Feature image: Arrita Katona / K2.0.