Perspectives | Elections 2019

Ensuring democratic engagement would be a big step toward ensuring diaspora rights

By - 12.11.2019

Lessons to be learnt from the 2019 elections.

Last week, a month after Kosovo’s general elections, the results were finally announced by the Central Election Commission (CEC). The delay was partly due to recounts of specific ballot boxes where there were administrative irregularities, but the process has also been elongated by controversy over votes received from members of Kosovo’s diaspora.  

Voting from abroad has been a major topic in the 2019 national elections due to increased interest from diaspora members. Despite the bureaucratic process put in place by the Central Electoral Commission (CEC), some 40,313 people still managed to register within the 11-day registration window — a 100%* increase from the 2017 national elections when 20,354 people registered to vote. Additionally, many of the diaspora members took a flight or bus to be in Kosovo during the election day, which also resulted in an increase of voter turnout. 

However, despite the big increase, there is still a large number of people that do not exercise this right. The latest turnout only represents a small percentage of potential diaspora votes, since there are between 300,000 and 400,000 eligible voters living outside of Kosovo. And for those who apply to register for out of country voting, submitting the application is only the first step. The next steps are being approved and casting your vote on time. 

According to the CEC’s statistics from the 2017 elections, only 15,118 voter applications were approved, while just 5,246 valid votes were received on time — this means that only 30% of the approved registered voters managed to actually send their vote on time. In 2019, some 35,087 were approved, but only 22,893 (65%) were ultimately counted as valid ballots. 

Constitutional right vs. election law dilemma 

The unfortunate fact is that a total of 6,445 of the envelopes received (each of which could contain one or more vote) were initially deemed invalid by the CEC because they arrived after October 5.

According to the president of the CEC, these ballot packages were unacceptable because they failed to meet the legal deadline set by the CEC as per Article 96.2 of the Law on General Elections, which states that: “Out of Kosovo Vote should be received by the CEC prior to election day as determined by CEC rule.” 

However, for many of these packages, the delay was caused by factors outside of the senders’ control, and the legal restrictions in this regard are unreasonable, given that the late arrival of ballot packages was not the responsibility of voters, but was down to technical issues of postal delivery. We therefore should not be penalizing voters for something that they have no control over.

The CEC also made an exception in 2017 by accepting votes from abroad that arrived after the legal deadline.

Importantly, all the packages were mailed between September 19 and October 5 and the verification process of voter eligibility was still ongoing, which meant that operationally it was not problematic to accept these packages. Significantly, the CEC also made an exception in 2017 by accepting votes from abroad that arrived after the legal deadline. 

The diaspora focused NGO that I work for, Germin, filed a complaint to the Ombudsperson, and both Germin and political party Vetëvendosje filed two complaints to the Elections Complaints and Appeals Panel (ECAP) in regard to these votes that arrived after October 5. The first complaints related to 4,639 packages, and the second related to 1,806 packages. However ECAP rejected both. 

Vetëvendosje subsequently took its two cases to the Supreme Court, which ultimately ordered that the votes must be counted.

The saga shows that although the right to vote is guaranteed by the Constitution, there is room for concern when it comes to its enforcement and whether it is possible to properly exercise this constitutionally guaranteed right.

Rethinking diaspora engagement

The current attitude suggests a lack of appreciation for the will of the diaspora to vote. 

For a country like Kosovo, keeping the diaspora engaged in political processes is an important tool in retaining their loyalty and keeping patriotic sentiments alive. As the Venice Commission’s 2011 Report on Out-of-country Voting states, it is also a mechanism of equal treatment between resident citizens and diaspora members. 

Diaspora voting is also an additional tool for maintaining national belonging and strengthening ethnic identity. Among the various aspects of their home country in which the diaspora should be closely involved, political participation is arguably one of the most important. In this regard, voting is not only the most relevant form of political participation, but it’s also the best way of making diaspora voices heard. 

The diaspora has been historically close to the home country. During the struggles of the ’80s and ’90s, the diaspora was very involved in the affairs of Kosovo and alleviated many of the hardships. Moreover, the diaspora has been and continues to be a great contributor to the economy of Kosovo through remittances (15% of GDP) and to a lesser extent through investments. But while Kosovo has made some progress in recognizing the importance of the diaspora, little has been done across institutions to truly engage it.

There is snail-like progress in the advancement of political and social rights of Kosovo’s diaspora.

Enabling mechanisms that would include diaspora voices in the legislative and institutional framework are still lagging behind, despite years of advocacy by civil society organizations like Germin. Beyond remittances, Kosovo institutions have not been able to engage the diaspora in the policy-making process or even in a meaningful discussion about the affairs of Kosovo. 

Due to this, the diaspora has grown mildly distrustful of Kosovo’s government institutions and largely skeptical of the capabilities of public institutions. Despite the evolution in the structuring and organization of state institutions in Kosovo over the past decade, there is snail-like progress in the advancement of political and social rights of Kosovo’s diaspora. Their representation in key country issues is lacking and the diaspora increasingly feels overlooked by state institutions. 

In order to keep this heterogeneous widespread community interconnected with the homeland, Kosovo institutions must show that they are serious about wanting to ensure and promote the diaspora’s political and social rights inside Kosovo. 

A good start would be to respect a constitutional right, the right to vote. 

Diaspora and political parties 

For most of the political parties, with the exception of Vetëvendosje in recent years, the diaspora has not been a major topic nor an electoral target. However, this has changed recently taking into consideration the great impact of the diaspora in the country’s economy, and even greater future potential for its know-how and skill transfer.

Acknowledging this, most of the parties have talked about the importance of engaging the diaspora. Moreover, the diaspora vote was also of importance during the local elections, where the diaspora members’ ballots in 2017 pretty much decided the winner of two major cities: Prishtina and Prizren.

Although most of the parties have now begun to at least express their recognition of the role of the diaspora as an important social group, we are yet to see concrete steps toward engaging the diaspora in decision-making or extending access to voting via embassies and consulates. This approach, although very short-sighted, can be explained by two reasons. 

First, in all previous elections, trends show that diaspora votes mainly support opposition parties rather than governing political establishments. It’s a trend that continued in these elections, with Vetëvendosje winning 10,271 diaspora votes (44.9%), significantly more than the other parties put together (LDK 3,606; PDK 2,970; AAK-PSD 915; NISMA-AKR 1,129).

Second, it is difficult or impossible for clientelism-based political parties to attract diaspora voters since they are much more independent than in-country voters in terms of economic and political dependency on individuals in power. 

Additionally, diaspora members feel they need changes since the approach from the 2000s has been geared toward gathering investment-based support with very little engagement of the diaspora in framing key national priorities.

However, when engaged properly, the diaspora can be beneficial even for electoral support. If they support a certain party “today,” it doesn’t mean that they will not support another one “tomorrow.” Diaspora support, and ultimately their votes, cannot be taken for granted. 

Political parties need to understand that by increasing voting opportunities, and consequently by augmenting the number of votes from the diaspora, they increase the democratic legitimacy of elected officials. 

This is also one of the reasons why the 2019 parliamentary elections are considered among the best, partly because the turnout was relatively high, with more voters than ever before. And the diaspora also contributed here, taking into account that in addition to out of country voting voters, a large number of citizens who live abroad traveled to Kosovo via air and ground to be here in person on October 6 to vote.  

But with so many obstacles still in place, diaspora members are continuously discouraged from voting and their constitutional right is disregarded. Unfortunately, without a serious change in approach, the diaspora will continue to feel unincluded and the positive effects of their votes will not be felt. 

The principle of the equality to vote for diaspora members and equality to affect change and decision making within the Republic of Kosovo remains questionable at the very least.

Feature image: Arrita Katona / K2.0.

Correction: This number has been corrected after publishing. The originally published version stated that it was a 50% increase, whereas in fact it was a 100% increase.