Perspectives | Politics

Is it time for a directly elected president?

By - 24.01.2020

Negotiations over position again cause divisions and delays.

The October 2019 general elections caused a substantial storm in Kosovo’s political scene. Mostly because Lëvizja Vetëvendosje reaped the reward of years of relentless political activism and uncompromising opposition, narrowly winning the elections ahead of second-placed LDK.

Everyone, including the party’s political opponents, nodded in agreement that the leader of Vetëvendosje, Albin Kurti, would be the new prime minister.

The situation promised a smooth transition of power. PDK conceded minutes after the first exit polls had been published, LDK seemed ready to promptly enter into coalition with Vetëvendosje after months of speculation and weeks of campaigning with that promise, while President Hashim Thaçi — still the main object of Kurti’s political opposition — gave positive signals about the upcoming legislative procedures and called for the new government to be formed quickly.

But, if Kurti thought it would be an easy ride, he was very much mistaken. The curtains were only just beginning to open on a whole new drama. 

After the initial results were published following a quick vote count in the hours after the polls closed, the process was first slowed down by numerous appeals and recounts and actions through the courts, with the results only certified on November 27.

While Kurti has been left playing chess at two tables simultaneously, the most problematic piece is proving to be that of the president.

If someone had said even a matter of months ago that there would come a time when Thaçi would give his blessing for Kurti to lead the government, and the latter would refuse, most people would have rolled their eyes in disbelief. The two of them have proved tough opponents for one another over the years, disagreeing on almost every topic and leading vastly different political ideas and actions.

President Thaçi formally invited Kurti to meet with him on a number of occasions during the final days of December but the Vetëvendosje leader insisted on meeting on his own schedule; the two finally met on January 6, after which Thaçi continued to apply pressure on Kurti to officially receive the mandate to form the government.

Meanwhile, Vetëvendosje’s efforts to agree a coalition deal with LDK stalled. In an ironic turn of events as Kurti fended off the president on one side, the main obstacle to forming a government proved to be exactly the upcoming vacancy in the post of the president — who would become Thaçi’s successor when his mandate as president ends in 2021.

While Kurti has been left playing chess at two tables simultaneously, the most problematic piece is proving to be that of the president.

A history of shenanigans

Rewinding the tape back through the years of Kosovo’s independence since 2008, the post of the president has often proved to be a troublesome one for Kosovo’s nascent democracy and relatively new parliamentary tradition. 

The appointments of each of the four presidents elected since 2008 have come with their own controversies. Two presidents have had to resign following Constitutional Court decisions, one was elected after a political deal that involved the U.S. ambassador and an envelope, and the incumbent was elected in the third and final round of voting in the Assembly against the backdrop of angry protests on the streets outside.

Experts on constitutional and legal matters have often repeated over the years that a solution to these regular crises has always been there and is very much needed — electoral reform, whereby the president would be elected directly by the people, rather than by deputies.

Ismet Kryeziu, executive director of Kosovo Democratic Institute (KDI), explains that in 2011 the governing political parties in Kosovo — PDK and AKR — plus LDK as the main opposition party at the time, agreed to draft a law and implement profound electoral reform that would change the way that the president is elected. 

The agreement was reached during negotiations to overcome the political crisis that followed a Constitutional Court decision that there had been irregularities in the procedure that had seen the position of president go to Behgjet Pacolli, forcing him to leave the position just a few weeks after taking it up.

One of the points of the agreement between then leader of PDK, Thaçi, AKR leader Pacolli, and LDK leader Isa Mustafa — mediated by the U.S. ambassador at the time, Christopher Dell — was that the parties agreed to undertake electoral reform that would avoid such political blockades in the future by taking the election of the President out of political parties’ hands.

Over time, the idea of electoral reform was subtly set aside by all political actors.

The same deal brought Atifete Jahjaga to the presidency, for what was initially agreed to be a limited period. But since the deal was not implemented and the promised electoral reform never arrived, she remained in position for a full five year term until 2016.

Over time, the idea of electoral reform was subtly set aside by all political actors, the process of drafting a new law abandoned in its initial phases, and the main talk of reform left to good governance NGOs.

In a report published by KDI in 2018, political parties expressed significant differences in their answers to various questions about potential electoral reforms, including the way in which the president should be elected.

AAK and AKR said that the president should be elected directly by the voters, while Vetëvendosje and Nisma maintained that the president should continue to be elected by the parties that form the government by voting for their preferred candidate in the Assembly, as per the current system. 

LDK did not respond to the questions in the report and therefore their position on the matter is unclear, as is PDK’s stance as they specifically did not respond to this question in the report.

K2.0 contacted each of Kosovo’s main political parties to ask them for their official policy on reforming the way that the state’s president is elected, which was not mentioned in any of their governing platforms during the last election. However, none had provided a response at the time of publishing.

Kryeziu says that the stances of the political parties on this issue may differ depending on the political circumstances of the moment. 

Implementing any kind of reform in this direction is therefore complicated, because some parties believe their chances of having their candidate elected president would be lower through a direct vote, while others endorse reform believing that it could benefit their future chances.

The same stands for the current president, Thaçi, who has claimed on many occasions that he doesn’t intend to return to the party political life that he was part of before becoming head of state but that he would run for the presidency again if reforms were brought in and the position were to be directly elected.

‘Unity of the people’ proves divisive

The position of president has often proved an important bargaining card at the negotiating table when parties are attempting to form coalition governments, and therefore it has invariably ended up being a highly political appointment. This has at times created tension with the Constitution, which states that the president must represent the “unity of the people.”

Pacolli gave Thaçi the nod to form a coalition government in 2011 on condition of receiving the presidency, while Thaçi himself now occupies the highest office of state after an agreement with LDK’s Mustafa in 2014 that incited widespread frustration, including amongst LDK’s own supporters.

The recent stalemate in the negotiations to form a new coalition between Vetëvendosje and LDK has also appeared to underline the argument from those who believe there is need for reform. 

High stakes horse trading

The coalition negotiations between Vetëvendosje and LDK don’t only hang on the position of Kosovo’s presidency. The picture has been further complicated in recent weeks after the two parties failed to agree on a common candidate to be nominated as president of the Assembly during the session to constitute the new legislature on December 26.

The previous day, Isa Mustafa had presented LDK’s proposal to Vetëvendosje in a press conference, saying that if their would-be partner declined it, LDK was ready to walk away from a potential coalition and vote in favor of a Vetëvendosje minority government. But estimating Mustafa’s readiness to vote for a Vetëvendosje cabinet as a bluff, Albin Kurti decided to call it.

During the session, the Vetëvendosje leader walked to the Assembly podium, with everyone assuming he would request a session postponement in order to buy more time. Instead, he nominated his party colleague, Glauk Konjufca, as president of the Assembly, and he was duly elected — with LDK deputies also voting in his favor.

With the constitutive session of the Assembly completed, it automatically triggered a 60 day window to form a government before new elections would have to be called, thereby adding extra pressure to the coalition negotiations. LDK deputies were seen hesitating to applaud the newly elected president of the Assembly, and the party has since decried Konjufca’s election as a “unilateral” decision by Vetëvendosje as the two parties continue to seek a common agreement.

While there are three primary positions of state — president, president of the Assembly and prime minister — there are only two parties negotiating for these positions, and neither appears ready to give the other the political advantage of holding two at the same time.

LDK initially claimed that in order to ensure a balance of power, it should get both the position of president and that of president of the Assembly. But Vetëvendosje has been reluctant to cut this sort of deal and has been pushing to reach an agreement that would see a non-political or independent candidate elected president in 2021.

Nonetheless, after Vetëvendosje’s Glauk Konjufca was elected president of the Assembly on December 26, the LDK stance changed. 

Although their deputies voted for Konjufca in the session, they are now requesting that he resigns in order for the LDK candidate to be elected in his place. Next year, in return for LDK’s candidate for president being elected, the role of president of the Assembly would then go back to Vetëvendosje.

Support for reform

Over the years, a general consensus seems to have developed in Kosovo that there is need for reform in the way in which the president is elected. The 2018 KDI report shows that an overwhelming majority of people surveyed, 88%, believed that the president should be directly elected. 

A simple K2.0 poll conducted recently on Instagram similarly showed that 87% of respondents supported the direct election of the president by voters.

Experts say that a directly elected president — plus more widespread election reform — is required because the current system does not ensure a stable government and institutions. When the election of a president is tied up as part of a coalition agreement, it can cause an extra area of instability, as was the case in 2010 when Fatmir Sejdiu resigned, triggering new parliamentary elections; no government in Kosovo has completed a four-year term since Kosovo’s independence in 2008.

Directly elected presidents can also have the advantage of providing a balance of powers between parties, as will be the case now in Croatia after recent presidential elections.

The victory of former social democrat Prime Minister Zoran Milanović against Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović has shaken the government ahead of the upcoming general elections due later this year. Before becoming president, Grabar-Kitarović was part of the Croatian Democratic Union party, whose current leader, Andrej Plenković, is Croatia’s prime minister. 

Such situations however also have their potential downsides. Rather than being a check on unbridled government power, elected presidents can also lead to potential government instability if the president chooses to use their powers in ways that create institutional blockages.

Although the presidency is considered to be a largely ceremonial role, Kosovo’s president has a number of important powers granted by the Constitution. These include leading on foreign policy, being the supreme commander of the country’s military force, having significant powers in the appointment of various senior positions in the justice, security and diplomatic structures, and having the right to propose constitutional changes.

But, for now at least, the election of Kosovo’s president remains out of the hands of citizens and part of the behind-closed-doors political deal-making. 

With Kurti required to secure a majority in the Assembly for his proposed new cabinet in the coming days, and negotiations for a new coalition government having entered a crucial phase, he has some big decisions to make. 

Not least, whether he is prepared to compromise over the presidency.K

Feature image: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.