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 in the run up to 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.
Since this is the first one, there’s a lot to catch up on…
The issue of candidates being barred from running in the election due to criminal records was always going to attract significant attention after the Constitutional Court decision that brought about these elections in the first place. So it was little surprise that it was precisely this issue that has dominated the headlines — and the controversies — this week.
It all culminated on Friday (January 22) evening as the Central Election Commission’s (CEC) deadline for certifying political entities and their candidate lists approached.
Ultimately, the Commission voted not to certify Vetëvendosje (VV) — the party that won the 2019 elections and that has been favorite to win again in February — throwing the whole election process into uncertainty.
Minor party Nisma also failed to get certified, while the Alliance for the Future of Kosovo (AAK) was certified as an entity, but its list of candidates was rejected after it requested that the two issues be voted upon separately.
The following days and weeks now look set to be a whirlwind of appeals and legal challenges as the political temperature rises and everyone tries to understand the full implications of the latest development. Parties and candidates are eligible to appeal the CEC’s decisions within 24 hours through the Elections Complaints and Appeals Panel and could subsequently take their complaints to the Supreme Court, while there could also be legal challenges through the Constitutional Court.
To understand how we got here, let’s backtrack a little.
Kurti was indeed amongst 47 candidates adjudged not to comply with the Law on General Elections.
In December, the Constitutional Court upheld a complaint from a number of VV deputies that the Avdullah Hoti-led government was unconstitutional. The court decided that new elections were required as the formation of the government had depended on the vote of a deputy who was in post illegitimately due to a recent conviction.
The court decision specifically pointed to Article 29.1(q) of the Law on General Elections, which states: “Any person whose name appears on the Voters List is eligible to be certified as a candidate, except if he or she is found guilty of a criminal offence by a final court decision in the past three (3) years.”
Speculation immediately turned to whether Vetëvendosje’s (VV) popular leader Albin Kurti would be allowed to stand as a candidate. In January 2018, the Basic Court of Prishtina had given Kurti and other leading VV figures conditional prison sentences after being convicted of using offensive weapons for setting off tear gas in the Assembly in 2015. The decision became final after being upheld by the Court of Appeal in September 2018.
Despite that conviction, when VV submitted their proposed list of candidates for the upcoming election to the CEC, VV still nominated Kurti as their prime ministerial candidate.
On Wednesday (January 20), the Central Election Commission (CEC) announced it had received the results from the Kosovo Judicial Council (KJC), which it had asked to assist in the candidate verification process. Kurti was indeed amongst 47 candidates — spread between 15 different registered political entities — adjudged not to comply with the Law on General Elections.
When asked what this implied for him and the list he was planning to head, Kurti did not give a clear answer. “We have submitted our list as was requested, and that is our list,” he said. “I am a list holder who strictly respects and abides by the Constitution and the laws that protect the rights of each and every one of us.”
Following the announcement of the list of candidates who were at risk of not being certified by the CEC, its head, Valdete Daka, held a press conference where she denounced threats from political parties to the Commission and to her personally. VV’s Glauk Konjufca and Albulena Haxhiu — who was convicted in the same case as Kurti — had accused the CEC of trying to “eliminate” Kurti from the list.
By the time of Friday’s CEC meeting, however, things seemed less clear cut.
“Public threats against me and the concern that my family is experiencing are unprecedented and dangerous,” she said. “All the candidates who yesterday saw themselves on the list of the Kosovo Judicial Council as persons who do not meet the criteria to be certified as a candidate for deputy, I will tell you succinctly, in Albanian and clearly: It is the law and the decision of the Constitutional Court that make your candidacy impossible, and not me.”
By the time of Friday’s CEC meeting, however, things seemed less clear cut as the Commission’s Office for Political Parties Registration and Certification (OPPRC) recommended that all parties and candidates be certified. Explaining the reason for the recommendation, OPPRC executive director Yll Buleshkaj said that there were ambiguities in Article 29.1(q) of the Law on General Elections — and that it had not received meaningful guidance on the matter from the range of institutions it had contacted for assistance.
Hours of heated discussion within the CEC ensued, as the Commission’s 11 members debated whether to vote to certify each political entity and candidate list individually, or to follow the OPPRC recommendation and vote on them all as a package. Ultimately, a majority of members voted for considering the submissions individually.
The Commission members subsequently approved the candidate lists of the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK) and the Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK) — which had both replaced those candidates on their lists with recent convictions — as well as the list of Lista Srpska and other political entities representing minority communities.
VV and Nisma both vowed to appeal the rejection of their lists, with VV describing CEC’s decision as “scandalous” and Nisma leader Fatmir Limaj saying it was an “unprecedented attack on our party and of the whole democratic process.”
Another issue that came as little surprise this week was the discrepancy between the words and actions of political parties when it comes to gender equality.
Of the bigger parties, LDK and PDK exactly met the legally-mandated threshold of 30% women in their original electoral lists submitted to the CEC. AAK fared little better, with just 31% of their proposed candidates women, while women comprised 37% of VV’s proposed list.
Reacting to this news, the Kosovar Center for Gender Studies said: “This low percentage of women on the electoral lists, which will be reflected in the composition of the legislature, in addition to maintaining the mentality and practices of excluding women in politics, has a negative impact on the policy-making process as it does not guarantee the inclusion of the interests of all identity and economic groups, between and within genders.”
As far as surprises go, Srpska Lista’s effectively uncontested position within Serb minority parties is not one of them. Nenad Rašić, leader of the Serb Progressive Democratic Party, which will not run in these elections, told Prishtina Insight that there is once again no chance of free and fair elections for Serbs in Kosovo.
Rašić alluded to candidate and voter intimidation which was widely documented during the 2019 campaign, from which Belgrade-backed Srpska Lista overwhelmingly secured all 10 seats reserved in the Assembly for Kosovo’s Serb minority.
Ognjen Gogić, a policy analyst at NGO Aktiv, told Radio Free Europe that Lista Srpska has a “monopoly” in the Serb community. “To some extent, it is the policy of official Belgrade to place all Serbs under one umbrella, who are represented by the Serb List,” he said. “All other political parties have systematically collapsed, been portrayed as infidels and so on.”
Get with the program
The first party to publish an electoral program ahead of the February campaign was AAK, whose 68-page program is based on four main pillars: the economy, security and rule of law, welfare, and foreign policy.
The party’s campaign slogan is set to be “Kosovo Force” but AAK is simultaneously pushing a “Ramushi for President 2021,” message having previously announced that leader Ramush Haradinaj wants to be Kosovo’s next president. The position of president isn’t actually on the ballot paper, although the new Assembly members are set to elect the next president for a five year mandate later in the year.
Perhaps AAK’s most eye-catching promises are in terms of the economy, where they pledge to “realize economic growth with an 8% norm until the end of the mandate” (before the pandemic, economic growth was around 4%) and a 1 billion euro “Reconstruction Package” aimed at COVID-19 recovery through helping businesses and citizens financially.
However after PDK revealed a similar pledge of a 1 billion euro fund in their program on Monday, AAK Lulëzim Blaka said PDK had “copied” their idea.
PDK’s program is tighter in scope, focusing specifically on economic recovery through supporting private businesses, raising the amount of money in social assistance schemes by 40%, age-related pensions by 30-40% and pensions of war veterans by 30%. The issue of war veteran pensions is a controversial one, with tens of millions of euros of the country’s budget reserved for more than 35,000 beneficiaries each year, while around 19,000 of them are suspected to have forged their veteran status.
Hoti has mentioned the possibility of directing reciprocal trade measures toward Serbia, a highly controversial issue that LDK has not supported in the past.
PDK also promises to raise the minimum wage to 300 euros, raise public sector wages “at an average of 30%.” Average wages in the public sector are already 40-50% higher than those in the private sector, which according to a 2020 report by Riinvest Institute, “has a disruptive effect on the labor market and the competitiveness of Kosovo’s economy.”
The LDK-AKR joint list hasn’t published a written program yet, but they have revealed a slogan of “We Remain in the League.” In pre-campaign gatherings and field visits, LDK’s acting Prime Minister Avdullah Hoti — who is running to be PM again — has been presenting a “pro-West” vision.
Hoti has also mentioned the possibility of directing reciprocal trade measures toward Serbia, a highly controversial issue that LDK has not supported in the past and was ultimately one of the final straws that broke the VV-LDK coalition government in early 2020.
After intense pressure from the U.S and EU, one of the first things Hoti did when he became prime minister in June was reverse the Albin Kurti-led government’s decision to implement such reciprocity. However, at a recent meeting with Albanians in Presheva, he said: “Without exception, all the measures that Serbia directs to us, we have the right and we will direct them toward Serbia.”
VV is also yet to publish a written program, although it has published the party’s agreement to join forces in one electoral list with former LDK prime ministerial candidate Vjosa Osmani’s civil initiative “Guxo” (Dare).
The agreement has 10 commitments, starting with “a functional review of the justice system with vetting as an integral part of this process, as well as full determination toward the uncompromising fight against corruption and organized crime.” Among other things they also pledge to prioritize economic recovery after the pandemic, merit-based appointments in the government, review of the representation and organization of the diplomatic service, and “an aim to achieve” equal gender representation in government and other institutions.
Too good to be true?
Part of the pre-campaign craze for any election is people of diverse backgrounds becoming members of political parties. Activists, professors, professionals from Kosovo and the diaspora, celebrities from the entertainment industry, family members of former deputies and state leaders — among others.
Talking us through such developments is usually a host of political analysts, who appear on almost nightly prime time discussion shows.
However, anyone counting on independence and objectivity from those political analysts who have played an active role in shaping public opinion in recent times may have found themselves in for a bit of a shock.
Ardian Kastrati — political science lecturer, former TV editor and regular analyst in TV debates — joined PDK, as did Faton Abdullahu, another political analyst who had previously been an advisor to then Prime Minister Isa Mustafa of LDK. Armend Muja, dean of a private college and analyst, joined VV.
Away from the analysts, other recent high profile political signings are wartime rape survivor Vasfije Krasniqi-Goodman, who joined VV, and business oligarch and former deputy Ramiz Kelmendi — who was previously part of AAK, then PDK, then LDK — who re-joined PDK.
They said WHAT?
Popullist statements coming from politicians aren’t news, especially before elections, but then there are some that make you go: WHAT?
Presidential aspirant Haradinaj’s Facebook post addressed to Serbian president Aleksandar Vučić is one of them. “If you and others want to avoid a referendum on the unification of Kosovo with Albania in 2025, there is a very simple way: Serbia to recognize Kosovo as an independent country,” it read.
Then there’s the back and forth between PDK’s candidate Enver Hoxhaj and Kurti. After Hoxhaj invited Kurti to go on five TV debates with him on particular issues, Kurti refused saying that the other parties are in a “race for second place” and that he had “nothing to look for in that race.”
Hoxhaj responded to Kurti’s remark by calling him an authoritarian leader — a common accusation from opponents. Speaking at a rally in Podujeva last week, LDK’s Hoti had also made similar intimations, telling supporters: “Albin Kurti has turned Kosovo into North Korea — we should show him and Vjosa Osmani their place.”
“Such lynching vocabulary is unacceptable for AJK, as it is considered pressure toward our journalist colleagues.”
After an opinion poll by Riinvest College was broadcast on Dukagjini earlier this week suggesting that VV could be heading toward a landslide victory, the war of words intensified.
LDK invited citizens “not to fall for the propaganda trap of TV Dukagjini and the Vetëvendosje movement.” In a Facebook post, they accused the TV channel of servitude to VV and criticized the methodology used for the poll, claiming it couldn’t be professional nor ethical since the Dean of Riinvest College is Armend Muja (who recently joined VV). PDK’s Memli Krasniqi made a similar Facebook post, saying that Albin Kurti was using the channel “to promote fake news and fabricated polls,” and that “these methods are used by autocratic dictators.”
The Association of Journalists of Kosovo (AJK) subsequently issued a reaction condemning such statements as a threat to the media’s freedom of speech. “Such lynching vocabulary is unacceptable for AJK, as it is considered pressure toward our journalist colleagues,” reads the reaction. “AJK considers that this kind of pressure directly affects the editorial policies, as it is a direct form of public pressure.”
Kosovo’s diaspora has played an increasing role in elections in recent years, with more than 40,000 members attempting to register last time around — a new record.
This year, that number is anticipated to have been blown out the water. Following Thursday’s deadline for applying to vote from abroad, the CEC announced on Friday (January 22) that it had over 130,000 unopened emails that it was hoping to process in the coming days — with 200 staff working to try and clear the backlog.
There has been particular focus on the diaspora voter registration process this year, after the CEC introduced a new voter applicant verification process for those living outside Kosovo.
Initially, the CEC announced that applicants would receive a phone call to verify their application and if they didn’t pick up the phone, their application would be rejected. Following a significant public backlash and accusations of voter disenfranchisement, the CEC issued a subsequent decision that set out a series of steps their officials would take to contact applicants when verifying their applications.
The CEC said on Friday that its latest figures showed around 2,500 applicants to date had not answered the phone when called.
Outgoing governments have a habit of rushing through swathes of last-minute decisions as they make the most of their final days in office to exercise their remaining power. The Hoti-led administration appears to be no different.
Kosovo Law Institute issued a statement earlier this month expressing concern that the outgoing government is continuing to rush through the appointment of the general director of Kosovo Police, despite an injunction from the Basic Court of Prishtina forbidding it. The temporary injunction is part of a civil lawsuit against the Ministry of Internal Affairs initiated by former general director Rashit Qalaj, who was dismissed from his role by Hoti in October. Qalaj subsequently joined PDK after the elections were announced.
Meanwhile, as part of a range of decisions by the acting government issued on Thursday (January 21), four former secretaries general of Kosovo’s ministries were made executive directors of independent agencies.
Two of the appointees — Arton Berisha, Hajriz Koci — were dismissed from their roles as secretaries general in February 2020 as part of the Kurti-administration’s restructure of ministries; in 2019, Koci had been asked to give up his position by the Anti-Corruption Agency due to a conflict of interest after he had served as the minister’s political adviser. Betim Reçica was also dismissed by the incoming Kurti administration.
The fourth appointee, Kushtrim Cukaj was dismissed from his role as secretary general of the Ministry of European Integration in May 2020 due to allegations of abuse of power.
With a month to go until election day, the government decided to change its restrictive measures aimed at slowing the spread of COVID-19 to allow gatherings for “public activities.”
Gatherings of more than 5 people have been banned since mid-July when Kosovo began to experience its initial peak in infections, and the ban will remain in place for funerals and weddings. However, under the new rules, up to 30 people are now allowed to gather in closed spaces — where virus transmission is greater — and up to 50 people in “public spaces, parks, public places, winter recreation centers, etc.”
The relaxing of restrictive measures comes despite evidence that the official number of COVID-19 cases reported has once again been on the rise since the start of January, after a steady decline in December. In the past week, the average number of new reported daily cases has been over 300, up from around 200 at the turn of the year.
The official number of COVID-19-related deaths has remained relatively high with 112 officially reported already in 2021 — an average of 5 per day. On Friday (January 22) alone, 14 new COVID-19 deaths were officially recorded, the highest number since mid-December.
Despite the relaxation in rules, political parties have repeatedly failed to comply with the law as photos of illegal gatherings are regularly posted on social media. Outgoing government coalition parties LDK, AAK and Nisma all received 2,000 euro fines from the Municipality of Prishtina for flouting the rules this week, while LDK was also fined 2,000 euros on January 11 for a previous breach.K
Feature image: Arrita Katona / K2.0.