In-depth | Politics

Kosovo government ruled unconstitutional

President set to call new elections for early 2021.

Kosovo will head to early elections for the second time in 18 months following a decision by the Constitutional Court announced late on Monday (December 21). 

The decision states that the way in which the coalition government led by Avdullah Hoti was formed in June was unconstitutional and that the president must therefore declare new elections. These elections should be held within 40 days of being called.

The court’s ruling — following a request by 17 Vetëvendosje deputies filed on June 11 — found that deputy Etem Arifi did not have a valid mandate to take part in the June 3 Assembly vote in which the government was elected because he had previously been sentenced to prison by a final court verdict. 

Without Arifi’s vote, the Assembly decision to elect the government — which passed by just a single vote — did not receive the backing of a majority of deputies, as required by the Constitution.

An Assembly deputy’s mandate “comes to an end or becomes invalid” if they are convicted of a crime and sentenced to one or more years imprisonment.

Because this was officially the second attempt to form a government, the court ruled that new elections are required based on Article 95.4 of the Constitution. The Constitutional Court had previously ruled that the first attempt had failed when the party that had won the most recent elections — Vetëvendosje — was unable to form a new government following its dismissal in a vote of no-confidence.

The current coalition government led by Hoti will remain in office until a new government is elected, while the court noted that decisions taken by the incumbent administration remain in force.

Arifi, an Ashkali Party for Integration deputy, was convicted of fraud by the Basic Court of Prishtina in April 2018 and initially handed an 18 month suspended sentence. That was subsequently extended to a 15 month prison sentence following a successful appeal by the Special Prosecution that was confirmed in August 2019 — before general elections that were held on October 6, 2019.

According to Article 70.3 of Kosovo’s Constitution, an Assembly deputy’s mandate “comes to an end or becomes invalid” if they are convicted of a crime and sentenced to one or more years imprisonment by a final court decision.

At the time of publishing, none of the outgoing governing coalition parties have issued an official reaction to the Constitutional Court’s decision.

End of a (brief) era

The Constitutional Court’s decision is the culmination of a turbulent six months for the Hoti-led administration, which has been marred by controversy and accusations of illegitimacy from the start. 

Hoti’s Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK) came together with the Alliance for the Future of Kosovo (AAK), Nisma and parties representing minority communities — including Belgrade-backed Srpska Lista (Serb List) — after being invited to form a government by then President Hashim Thaçi. 

LDK had previously been the junior partner in a coalition with Vetëvendosje (VV) before toppling the government it was part of in a vote of no-confidence in March, just 52 days after taking office. The no-confidence vote came in the midst of Kosovo’s initial pandemic response, when the government was attempting to take urgent steps to limit the spread of the virus, and citizens were unable to leave their homes due to a strict lockdown; many voiced their opposition via nightly balcony protests in which they hit pots and pans.

The Hoti administration has struggled to get a grip of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Vetëvendosje — which had won the elections in October 2019 on a ticket of change and a vow to combat institutionalized corruption — claimed that Thaçi’s decision to invite LDK to form a government following the successful vote of no-confidence was unconstitutional and that new elections should be held. However a Constitutional Court decision in May ruled that it was constitutional to form a new government without fresh elections. 

President of the Assembly Vjosa Osmani — LDK’s popular prime ministerial candidate in October’s elections who was widely credited with turning around her party’s fortunes at the polls — spoke out vociferously against her party’s maneuvering, and did not take part in the Assembly session to elect the Hoti government. Osmani had proposed a temporary technical government pending new elections.

There was further controversy during the Assembly vote itself after a Nisma deputy who had previously said he would not support the government formation announced that he had changed his mind following a visit to his house by Thaçi — who as president the Constitution required to be politically neutral — and AAK leader Ramush Haradinaj.

In office, the Hoti administration has struggled to get a grip of the COVID-19 pandemic, with cases soaring intermittently and regular warnings that Kosovo’s already inadequate health care system is at risk of becoming overwhelmed. With such a weak mandate, it took more than four months for the government to pass its own Law on Economic Recovery through the Assembly, after multiple failed attempts, and there have long been rumors that the coalition was on the edge of collapse.

Changed political landscape

This election campaign looks set to be very different from the one in October 2019 as there have been significant changes in the political party landscape.

Of the top three parties in the last elections, only winners Vetëvendosje are likely to run with the same prime ministerial candidate, after internal instability within LDK and PDK in recent months.

Former Prime Minister Albin Kurti is expected to once again lead VV’s ticket, after initial speculation that the Constitutional Court’s latest decision may invalidate his potential candidacy were quickly debunked.

After a meeting with acting President Vjosa Osmani to consult on the timeframe for early elections, he told the media that they hadn’t talked about a concrete date but he expressed his interest to hold them as soon as possible.

“We have to get the full verdict of the Constitutional Court first, and it depends on the date when the full verdict comes to us as a party,” he said. “We are interested in holding elections as we have lost a lot of time and we need to move as quickly as possible to return to the people as a source of sovereignty, to restore the legitimacy to institutions and to have a new and competent government that will bring Kosovo out of the multiple crises.”

PDK’s leader and former prime ministerial candidate Kadri Veseli is in The Hague facing charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Osmani, who as acting president is meeting representatives of all major parties on Tuesday (December 22), will not lead LDK’s ticket again this time around after breaking ties with the party in September. 

In June, LDK’s General Council dismissed her from her two leading positions in the party after she refused to toe the party line in its maneuvering to form a government. She reacted in a Facebook post by hinting at the difference in votes at the last election between her and the rest of LDK’s leading figures, some of whom hadn’t run at all.

“You are so cowardly that you will not dare to go out in the confrontation [in future elections], but you will still hide behind someone else,” she wrote. “But the big confrontation will happen. The people have raised me and only they will be able to overthrow me.”

Meanwhile, PDK’s leader and former prime ministerial candidate Kadri Veseli is in The Hague facing charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity in the Kosovo Specialist Chambers, alongside his predecessor as PDK head, Thaçi. On the day the charges were publicly confirmed, Veseli announced that he was stepping back from all “public and political activities for the duration of this process.” 

In Veseli’s absence, Enver Hoxhaj is acting head of PDK, which was in power for more than a decade before moving into opposition at the last elections. The party welcomed the Constitutional Court’s decision in a Facebook post, saying that in the upcoming elections it will run “with a concrete program and proposals to pull the country out of the deep crisis in which it was plunged by the parties that have ruled the country since the last elections.”

Pre-election chess

It is not yet clear whether parties will seek to form pre-election coalitions.

In last year’s campaign, VV and LDK attempted to join forces in a pre-election coalition that ultimately didn’t happen as both parties insisted that their own party’s prime ministerial candidate should head the list. Following huge popular support for both candidates at the polls, and post-election negotiations that lasted almost four months, Kurti became prime minister and Osmani president of the Assembly. 

While there is little prospect of a VV-LDK coalition this time around following the acrimonious end to their fleeting spell in power together, one of the considerations that hampered the formation of that government is still an unresolved issue, and if anything has become more complicated in recent months: The upcoming vacancy in the post of Kosovo’s president.

During the last elections, the presidency was set to become vacant at the scheduled end of Hashim Thaçi’s five-year-term in April 2021. LDK wanted VV’s backing for its own candidate when the time came for the Assembly to appoint a successor, while VV insisted that since the Constitution determines that the president “represents the unity of the people” they should cross that bridge when they came to it. 

Osmani has not yet confirmed whether she will run in the upcoming elections.

However, the presidential post ultimately became vacant early, on November 5, when the Specialist Chambers confirmed the indictment against Thaçi, Veseli, head of VV’s parliamentary group Rexhep Selimi and Nisma co-founder Jakup Krasniqi. Thaçi resigned as president and, as per the Constitution, Osmani — as president of the Assembly — took over the role on an acting basis. 

Osmani has not yet confirmed whether she will run in the upcoming elections, but given the politically neutral role of the president, she would not be allowed to hold a party political position while in office. The Constitution does not explicitly state who should become acting president if the incumbent acting president were to resign. 

Meanwhile, the position of acting president cannot be exercised for longer than six months, during which time the Assembly should elect a new president. A constitutional expert previously told K2.0 that if the Assembly cannot elect a new president within that period, general elections are automatically triggered.

Current coalition government member AAK, which came fourth in the last elections in a pre-election coalition with the Social Democratic Party (PSD), has previously proposed its leader Ramush Haradinaj for the post of president, but it is unclear if this will change given the announcement of snap elections. 

Separately, PSD has undergone internal elections since former leader Shpend Ahmeti’s resignation from all party structures after the party barely scraped into the Assembly with just a single deputy in the last elections. The party is now led by Dardan Molliqaj, who was one of the most prominent former members of VV to speak out about disagreements with Kurti before splitting and forming PSD. It has yet to issue a formal reaction to the Constitutional Court’s decision.

Behgjet Pacolli, leader of opposition party the New Kosovo Alliance (AKR), responded to news of the early elections by stating in a Facebook post that “these are Kosovo’s most politically challenging times” and called on parties to run “with a vision that makes Kosovo better than today and not [with] hate and anger.”K

Feature image: K2.0.

Editor’s note: This article was initially published as an emerging news story. It was added to during the day on December 22 to add further context and background to the initial news of the Constitutional’s Court’s decision.