Lately | Elections 2019

Elections: 5 things we learnt this week

By - 04.10.2019

U.S. ‘friends,’ gender (in)equality and a rare message.

It’s nearly all over. 

The official campaigns may have only been underway for the past 10 days, but it’s hard to remember a time when parties weren’t preparing for Sunday’s election.

Saturday promises to offer a brief bit of respite as the 24-hour campaign silence period kicks in before the polls open early Sunday morning. And by Sunday night we’ll have our first indications of how all the speculation, hopes and fears are panning out in the cold hard reality of election results. 

But before all that, the final week of the campaign has moved along at a frantic pace as parties pulled out all the campaigning stops, touring the country and TV stations to roll out their core messages one final time.

If you haven’t kept up, don’t panic — there has been a lot going on. And for one final time in this pre-election period, we’ve got you covered!

Here’s five things we learnt this week. 

1. Links to embattled U.S. president no barrier to anti-corruption message

Probably the biggest splash of the week has been made by the Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK), which has spent the week trying to consolidate its core anti-corruption and pro-U.S. relations messages. 

Huge banners of party leader Kadri Veseli shaking hands with U.S. President Donald Trump — himself embroiled in an international abuse of office scandal and facing an impeachment inquiry — raised some international eyebrows

But it was a link to one of Trump’s former subordinates that particularly caught the media’s attention. On Tuesday, the U.S. Embassy was forced to put out a statement denying that it was supporting any party or candidate in the elections, after it emerged that Trump’s former acting attorney general was in Kosovo to give a rousing speech at a PDK rally in Gjilan.

Media quickly pointed out that Whitaker is hardly the ideal pin-up boy for a party trying to distance itself from scandal.

To cheers of “USA! USA!” Matthew Whitaker described Veseli as a “reformer” and a “friend”; the latter also published a picture on his Facebook account of the two men sitting in Burger King together. 

“It is obvious to me that this election here in Kosovo is about, one, fighting corruption, and two, having an economic opportunity for every citizen of Kosovo,” Whitaker said in his speech. “Both of these goals will be accomplished by having a prime minister that looks to the United States for friendship and support.”

Local and international media quickly pointed out that Whitaker is hardly the ideal pin-up boy for PDK’s recent attempts to distance itself from the numerous high profile corruption scandals that have dogged its time in office. 

Whitaker reportedly spent more than a year on the advisory board of a company that a U.S. judge shut down after it was accused by regulatory authorities of running “a scam that has bilked thousands of consumers out of millions of dollars.” His appointment by Trump as acting Attorney General — outside the usual Department of Justice accession process — was also labelled “unconstitutional” by Democrats who feared that the decision was based on Whitaker’s criticism of the investigation into potential Russian meddling in U.S. elections. 

Meanwhile, the Basic Prosecution of Prishtina issued a statement on Thursday saying that it had opened an investigation into businessman and former Deputy Prime Minister Ramiz Kelmendi, who appeared to encourage employees at his businesses to vote for PDK. The statement said the founder of ELKOS Group — a major employer in Kosovo — was being investigated under Article 210 of the Criminal Code of Kosovo, “Violating the Free Decision of Voters,” in relation to his public statements.

2. Major parties have few campaign surprises

Elsewhere on the campaign trail, the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK) was keen to highlight its own credentials with the “sacred” U.S.-Kosovo relationship. With “International Partnerships” one of the party’s five pillars in its published program for government, both prime ministerial candidate Vjosa Osmani and party leader Isa Mustafa made repeated claims of LDK being the only party that can truly bolster relations with one of Kosovo’s biggest supporters.

“I ask you to participate in elections as massive as in the time of President Rugova, to live out his vision for Kosovo as a democratic state developed and in eternal friendship with the United States of America and the European Union,” Osmani told supporters at a rally in Podujeva, invoking the spirit of former party leader Ibrahim Rugova.

Osmani was also keen to reinforce that under her leadership PDK could forget about going into a post-election coalition with LDK, while also emphasizing some of the parties core messages around economic development, fighting corruption and education.

Vetëvendosje (VV) has also focused in on anti-corruption measures in this final week of the election campaign and offered its alternative vision for Kosovo under the party’s “Erdhi Dita” (The Day Has Come) slogan.

“For workers: work, bread and dignity. For the tycoons, tax on legitimate profit, punishment and confiscation of that which is illegitimate.”

Albin Kurti, VV

Speaking at a rally in Peja, prime ministerial candidate Albin Kurti spoke of the “second liberation” of Kosovo “from the oligarchs and tycoons that have occupied it.” “We will quadruple the number of labor inspectors, establish the Labor Court, adopt the new Labor Law, and trade union organization will be assisted and strengthened,” he said.

“After October 6, for workers: work, bread and dignity. For the tycoons, tax on legitimate profit, punishment and confiscation of that which is illegitimate.”

Kurti also spoke this week about how VV wants an improved health care system, where people receive the treatment they need regardless of the money they have, to ensure that every household has someone who is employed and how a VV government would introduce much greater social protections. 

The Social Democratic Party (PSD), which acrimoniously split from VV last year, has also been using the final week of the campaign to highlight social issues including changing the minimum wage to a “living wage” to make it fairer for everyone, while party leader Shpend Ahmeti gave a speech in Gjilan arguing that Kosovo needs feminist men.

Haradinaj focused more on his message of international strength, doubling down on his message that only the coalition he heads can protect Kosovo’s current borders.

Speaking jointly with officials from coalition partner Alliance for the Future of Kosovo (AAK), PSD also announced they wanted to increase the education budget by 50% to enable free bachelor’s and master’s level education and a digital library for students. 

The PSD-AAK prime ministerial candidate, outgoing prime minister Ramush Haradinaj, focused more on his message of international strength, doubling down on his message that only the coalition that he heads can protect Kosovo’s current borders and stand up to Serbia through the 100% tax on Serian products that he imposed as prime minister. 

Meanwhile, head of the New Kosovo Alliance (AKR) Behgjet Pacolli, talked about the private sector jobs he has created through his businesses, and rolled out the familiar refrain that Kosovars would soon be traveling visa-free in Europe’s Schengen Zone. Coalition partner NISMA’s leader, Fatmir Limaj, focused on how Kosovo’s political parties should work together, in a nod to the fact that his coalition is highly unlikely to top the polls and is realistically looking at being a minority entity within any post-election government coalition. 

3. Gender equality does not mean 50-50, according to the courts

A court this week rejected a request by the Ombudperson to suspend the legal effects of electoral lists that do not guarantee the equal representation of women.

On Friday (Sept. 27), the Ombudsperson had announced that it was suing the Central Election Commission (CEC) at the Basic Court of Prishtina, citing that the candidate lists it had certified for the October 6 election violated the Law on Gender Equality. The Ombudsperson argued that in certifying candidate lists that did not give 50% of space to women, the CEC had violated two articles in the law:

Article 6.8, which states: “Equal gender representation in all legislative, executive and judiciary bodies and other public institutions is achieved when ensured a minimum representation of fifty percent (50%) for each gender, including their governing and decision-making bodies.”

"The judiciary once again fails in the legal protection of gender equality.”

Kosovo Women's Network

And Article 14, which reads: “Political parties with their acts are obliged to implement measures to promote equal participation of men and women at authorities and bodies of the parties in accordance with provisions of Article 6 of this Law.”

But CEC spokesperson Valmir Elezi said that the commission had ensured all lists complied with the Law on General Elections, which states that “at least thirty (30%) percent shall be male and at least thirty (30%) percent shall be female.”

Women’s rights group Kosovo Women’s Network issued a statement condemning the court’s decision and questioning its application of the law, saying that the judiciary “once again fails in the legal protection of gender equality.”

4. Election campaigns are an expensive business

Political parties have been been violating campaigning rules, with the CEC announcing this week that it had issued fines totalling more than 58,000 euros in the first five days of the official campaign period alone.

The majority of the fines were for placing posters in public spaces, but other violations included using children in campaign activities, putting pressure on citizens to vote for a particular political party, using public office for the purpose of obtaining votes and using hate speech.

The biggest fine was issued last week to Belgrade-backed party Srpska Lista (Serb List), which was handed down a 30,000 euro penalty by the CEC for language used in a promotional video that complainants Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN) and Kosovo Democratic Institute (KDI) had argued violated electoral legislation barring political subjects from publishing material inciting hatred or violence.

The fines are unlikely to make much of a dent on parties’ finances.

The next biggest fine went to LDK at 14,100 euros, followed by 6,100 euros for PDK, 6,000 euros for the AAK-PSD coalition and 2,500 euros for the NISMA-AKR coalition. 

Out of the major parties and coalitions, only VV appears to have not received a fine for violating campaign regulations.

Although they may seem large, the fines are unlikely to make much of a dent on parties’ finances. It was reported this week that around 1 million euros has been allocated to political parties for their election campaigns from the Kosovo state budget; under the Law on Financing of Political Parties, parties are entitled to public financing so long as the total budget allocated does not exceed more than 0.17 of the total state budget.

The amount that parties are allowed to spend on election campaigns is capped by the CEC based on the number of registered voters, with this year’s cap having been set at 986,000 euros per party — the equivalent of 50 cents per party for each registered voter.

5. Campaigns don’t need to reach out to just one ethnicity

The leader of the Sloboda (Freedom) coalition of Serb political parties this week made a rare attempt by a politician in Kosovo to reach out to voters beyond their own ethnic group by releasing a video partly in Albanian.

The simple video showed Nenad Rašić speaking in Albanian in the center of Prishtina, introducing himself as someone who, for a decade and a half, has served with “dignity, professionalism and tolerance” within Kosovo’s institutions for the shared goals of “building and developing the youngest state in the world.”

In the second part of the one-minute video, Rašić speaks in Serbian in the center of Prizren, saying: “We cherish our heritage despite the challenges. We have responsibility for what we will leave to our children. Our responsibility is to build a society that everybody would like to live in.”

“I don’t know how these elections can be presented as democratic after they are over because the situation is awful on the ground."

Nenad Rašić, Sloboda coalition

In an interview with Radio Free Europe (RFE), he later said that he had wanted to address Albanians directly “as is normal in democratic societies” because he believes that “Albanians and Serbs aspire to the same things.

The moderate politician, who is trying to reverse the dominance of Serb List — which won 9 out of 10 Assembly seats reserved for Serbs in the last general election — says he has faced a significant backlash since the release of the video. 

Serb parties have repeatedly warned about an atmosphere of intimidation, threats and blackmail created by Serb List and their backers in Belgrade. 

“The conditions are absolutely abnormal,” he told RFE. “I don’t know how these elections can be presented as democratic after they are over or how they can be because the situation is awful on the ground. I’m very sorry for my citizens that they have to go through it and honestly, I’m more concerned about them than about myself personally.” K

Feature image: Arrita Katona / K2.0.