In-depth | Politics

New political crisis as presidential vote stalls

Two days of political brinkmanship add to climate of uncertainty.

Kosovo is poised on the edge of another political crisis as attempts to elect a new president failed on Saturday night.

An extraordinary session of the Assembly will reconvene again at 17:00 on Sunday (April 4) after two attempts to hold a vote for the position of president did not achieve the required quorum.

Governing party Vetëvendosje (VV) had called for the extraordinary session on Saturday evening when they hoped to elect Vjosa Osmani as president. However with three of LDK’s deputies — including former Prime Minister Avdullah Hoti — defying the official party stance and refusing to vote, the whole process was thrown into uncertainty.

Constitutional experts have warned that if a new president cannot be elected soon, new extraordinary elections would be triggered.

In the first attempted vote late on Saturday night, only 78 deputies voted — two short of the quorum. A repeat of the first round was swiftly attempted, but still only 79 deputies cast a ballot.

Opposition parties PDK and Srpska Lista refused to take part in the vote, as did all but one of AAK’s deputies, while the Romani Initiative’s single deputy also failed to attend.

Speaking to the media after the session was halted for the night shortly after 11 p.m., acting head of VV’s parliamentary group, Mimoza Kusari Lila, said that certain members of LDK now had to prove they were the institutionalists that they always claimed to be.

“In the created circumstances, we consider it necessary to postpone the voting for the next day at 17:00 in order to ensure that we have conditions and opportunities to pass from the first round to the next round,” Kusari Lila said. “We had contacts [with deputies] in which there were non-definitive answers and in the end they withdrew or weren’t responsive in the participation of the voting. In these circumstances, I can not give all the specifics for their lack of participation because I do not have them.”

Constitutional experts have warned that if a new president cannot be elected soon, new extraordinary elections would be triggered, the third such elections in 18 months.

Threat of fresh elections looms

Political tension has reached fever pitch over the past 48 hours as politicians played a game of high-stakes political brinkmanship ahead of looming constitutional deadlines.

Kosovo has had an acting president since November 5, 2020, when Hashim Thaçi resigned in order to defend war crimes charges at the Specialist Chambers in The Hague. With the Constitution allowing an acting president to serve for a maximum of six months, constitutional experts have indicated that a new president must be in post by May 5 to avoid new elections being triggered. 

But many constitutional interpretations have suggested that elections could be triggered as early as Monday (April 5). That’s because of another provision in the Constitution that states elections for a new president should take place no more than 30 days before the end of the current president’s term of office.

Acting President Glauk Konjufca released a statement on Saturday morning in which he said he believed the Assembly “should begin the process” of electing the new president by April 5 [emphasis added], making the fact that Saturday’s voting session started potentially significant as it appears to remove the immediate deadline and push the threat of elections back by a month.

The dilemma for ensuring a successful presidential vote remains ensuring that enough deputies participate in the vote.

After the two failed voting attempts on Saturday, former head of Kosovo’s Constitutional Court Enver Hasani, who was also one of the original authors of the Constitution, told T7 TV that the vote must be successfully concluded by May 5. This assertion was echoed by VV’s Minister of Justice Albulena Haxhiu who said that there was now time until May 5 to continue holding the voting session.

However, the dilemma for ensuring a successful presidential vote remains ensuring that enough deputies participate in the vote.

A 2011 Constitutional Court decision stated that two-thirds of deputies must be in the Assembly hall at the time of the vote for the president, meaning a minimum of 80 out of the 120 total. That requires some form of consensus between government and opposition, which has often been hard to find in the past two days.

If a quorum can be achieved, then VV’s parliamentary dominance is likely to mean Osmani — who ran as part of VV’s list in the recent general election — would have enough votes to be elected president.

While a candidate requires a two-thirds majority of votes in the first two rounds of voting, only a simple majority is required in a third and final round. If no candidate is elected after three rounds of voting, new extraordinary elections within 45 days are automatically triggered. 

High-stakes brinkmanship

The presidential vote had initially been expected to take place on Friday (April 2). But governing party VV — which later admitted it had not confirmed enough support to guarantee the vote would pass — instead called another extraordinary session in an attempt to drive amendments on the Law on General Elections through the Assembly in an expedited process. 

This was seen by analysts as a “warning” to opposition parties not to try and force new elections by derailing the presidential voting process, as many of the amendments focused on facilitating an easier voting process for diaspora voters who have strongly backed VV in recent years.

It also emerged that one of the proposed amendments would have changed the provision in the Law that prevented VV’s leader, Albin Kurti, and others from running as candidates in the recent elections due to criminal convictions in the past three years.

The proposal to use an expedited process for the law failed to secure the support of two-thirds of deputies in a late-night vote on Friday, as opposition parties described the move as “blackmail” and LDK threatened to withdraw its support for the presidential vote if VV proceeded with it. Civil society organizations also called on VV to withdraw the initiative, saying such an approach only served party political interests.

Foreign ambassadors re-emphasized that all parties ensure new elections are avoided, particularly during a pandemic and economic crisis.

On Saturday morning, acting President Konjufca indicated a step back from the brinkmanship of the previous evening by announcing that following a meeting with Prime Minister Kurti and Osmani, the government had agreed not to continue unilaterally pursuing amendments to the Law on General Elections without opposition input. 

“All that remains is to ensure that the majority of the Assembly guarantees not to take any action without consulting the opposition in this regard, and the opposition not to boycott the process of electing the President, in order to avoid the repetition of elections,” Konjufca wrote in an official statement.

Even then, the situation continued to hang in the balance throughout Saturday as LDK said that it would not support an Assembly session to elect the president until VV formally withdrew the changes to the Law on General Elections, and VV said it would not withdraw the changes until LDK guaranteed it would support the session.

Foreign ambassadors also ramped up the pressure by re-emphasizing statements insisting that all parties ensure new elections are avoided so soon after February’s poll, particularly during a pandemic and economic crisis.

VV ultimately confirmed it had withdrawn its request for changes to the Law on General Elections, paving the way for the extraordinary Assembly session to elect the president, which convened shortly before 8 p.m. 

But the drama still wasn’t over.

LDK’s Avdullah Hoti, Agim Veliu and Driton Selmanaj remained resolutely in their seats.

During the session, PDK’s acting leader Enver Hoxhaj — who did not stay for the vote — accused Kurti of behaving like an autocrat. He said the actions with the Law on General Elections had confirmed Kurti was a threat to democracy and that PDK would rather head to elections than take part in such political theater. 

“I met Prime Minister Kurti and Osmani and citizens need to know that there was no interest in political, party or social consensus,” he said. “They were conducting the politics of oppression and not of compromise.”

Then came the voting.

As the names of deputies were read out one by one, calling them to come and cast their votes by secret ballot, LDK’s Avdullah Hoti, Agim Veliu and Driton Selmanaj remained resolutely in their seats. AAK’s Albena Reshitaj did cast a vote, despite the boycott of the session from the rest of her party, but it wasn’t enough to achieve a quorum for the vote. 

During a repeat of the first round, one additional vote was found — that of an LDK deputy who had arrived in the room too late to register her vote in the initial attempt. But it was still not enough to conclude the round.

After a break in which deputies scrabbled to find a solution, President of the Assembly Konjufca announced that they would reconvene to try again on Sunday afternoon.

Calculating the parliamentary arithmetic 

VV has 58 deputies in the Assembly, while it can also count on support from the majority of the 10 deputies representing non-Serb minority communities, many of whom are part of the governing coalition.

That means that while the government has a majority, opposition deputies are still required to cast a ballot in order to achieve the required quorum of 80 deputies for the presidential vote.

However both PDK, the largest opposition party with 19 seats, and AAK, which has eight seats, had already said they would not be part of the presidential vote.

PDK’s acting leader, Enver Hoxhaj, had said that Osmani was a “divisive figure” who does not represent the “unity of the people” as the role requires according to the Constitution. “Being party motivated and representing the interests of only one party and its leader, Mrs Osmani can not be at all worthy of the position of president,” Hoxhaj wrote in a recent Facebook post.

That left Osmani relying on cooperation from her former party, LDK.

AAK’s leader Ramush Haradinaj, who himself harbors aims of becoming president, had also told a recent press conference that VV had not asked his party for cooperation.

With Belgrade-backed Lista Srpska refusing to say what their stance was in advance, that left Osmani relying on cooperation from her former party, LDK, which has 15 seats in the current legislature.  

After several meetings with Osmani, LDK’s new leader, Lumir Abdixhiku — who succeeded Isa Mustafa in March following LDK’s worst ever election results — had announced on March 30 that the leadership had decided with an absolute majority that LDK would participate in the vote. 

“With the political force we have, we had two options: to choose obstruction and prevent the majority from making a decision or to be part of the developments while respecting the need of the citizens for political stability,” he said. “We chose the latter.”

However, reports that a number of LDK deputies were planning to defy the party’s decision still left the parliamentary arithmetic uncertain as the original deadline of April 5 for avoiding extraordinary elections loomed.

Playing with the law?

Friday started with a regular session of the Assembly during which the new legislature’s working committees were established.

Kurti also addressed deputies, telling them that since it was unusual circumstances that the presidential vote was following so shortly after the formation of the government, the government would present its working plan after the vote for the president had taken place.

It had been widely suspected that VV would call for an extraordinary Assembly session to elect a new president to be held later that day. However, when Mimoza Kusari Lila stood in front of the media to announce that VV was calling for an extraordinary session, the only item on the agenda was amending the Law on General Elections through an expedited procedure. 

During February’s election campaign, Kurti had promised that one of the first bills his government would bring to the Assembly would be to facilitate diaspora voting in embassies abroad after controversy surrounding postal voting and accusations of voter suppression.

“With today’s decisions, VV has excluded the opposition, the civil society — today’s actions are a form of blackmail.”

Lumir Abdixhiku, LDK leader

However, with VV having secured the majority of diaspora votes in the past two elections, the accelerated nature of the proposal and the timing led to widespread criticism. 

Kusari Lila suggested VV wanted to pass the law in a single day and that after it was passed they would move to the presidential vote, while GUXO deputy Haxhi Avdyli later told journalists asking about the apparent rush that “The possibility of a failed presidential election is great.”

Responding to the initiative, Abdixhiku said that the ruling party had acted in an “unprecedented way,” without consulting the opposition parties.

“This law should be part of the electoral reform; such reforms are made with the involvement and especially under the leadership of the opposition,” he said. “With today’s decisions, VV has excluded the opposition, the civil society — today’s actions are a form of blackmail.”

Abdixhiku added that LDK had always supported electoral reform but believed any reform should be deeper than those proposed. “If this change is not withdrawn, Prime Minister Kurti will send us to elections and create an institutional vacuum.”

As the situation became increasingly heated, VV’s Konjufca retorted on Facebook that if the country were forced into new elections it would not be his party that was responsible. “Everything is clear: Kosovo goes to the polls only and ONLY if there are more than 40 [deputies] absent from the Presidential election session. Only THEY take responsibility for the new elections and no one else.”

In the same post, Konjufca welcomed the “very mature and rational attitude” that LDK had shown in recent days by pledging to stay in the Assembly hall during the presidential vote, but hit back at accusations of blackmail. “The necessary rights of our diaspora are not blackmail for anyone. It is for the good of our people living outside Kosovo,” he wrote.

Further questions were also asked about the procedural issues of passing a law in such an accelerated manner.

Meanwhile, seven NGOs issued an open letter calling upon VV to withdraw the draft law, which it said was “partial” and that passing it in such a manner had the potential to cause institutional chaos. 

“[If] the Assembly fails to elect the president and consequently extraordinary elections are announced, the implementation of the proposed changes would be difficult due to the short deadlines to make all the necessary preparations for voting in the diplomatic missions and Kosovo consulates abroad,” read the letter. “In this way, the whole electoral process would be compromised.”

Further questions were also asked about the procedural issues of passing a law in such an accelerated manner with critics suggesting that it did not allow the proper scrutiny of changes to such an important law.

VV pointed to the fact that the process of introducing amendments to the Law through parliamentary procedures had already begun last year. 

According to the Assembly website, the draft law was first proposed in June 2020. A decision from the Hoti-led government in August 2020 assessed the proposed changes to the law as “incomplete.”

The version of the draft law shared with deputies on Friday had also been amended from the version that entered the parliamentary procedure last year. Amongst other amended provisions, the new version included a change to Article 29.1(q) of the Law on General Elections that had prevented Kurti from running as a deputy candidate in February’s election.

Critics accused VV of inserting suggested amendments into the Law on General Elections that were specifically aimed at helping their own party leader. Photo: Draft Law on General Elections (April 2021).

According to the proposed amendment, the clause, which currently bans anyone from running who has been found guilty of a criminal offense in the past three years, would be changed to specify that the sanction only applies to those who have been sentenced during that time to one or more years of imprisonment. 

Responding to allegations that VV was only proposing this amendment to ensure Kurti could run as a candidate in any upcoming election, VV’s Adnan Rrustemi told KTV that it was not a change to the law but a “harmonization” with Article 70 of the Constitution. 

Article 70.3(6) of the Constitution states that: “The mandate of a deputy of the Assembly comes to an end or becomes invalid when the deputy is convicted and sentenced to one or more years imprisonment by a final court decision of committing a crime.”

"It’s either more than 80 votes in the box for Vjosa Osmani, or over 500,000 votes in the ballot for the VETËVENDOSJE! Movement."

Albin Kurti, prime minister

With tensions still high on Saturday morning, Kurti posted a statement on Facebook saying that he had expected there to be people who didn’t like the draft law “but this hysterical panic about the diaspora vote is surprising.”

“We can not and do not want to lead the country to new elections because we want to elect a new President,” he wrote. “Those who do not want the election of the President, those who do not like the President, who have made and are waging a special war against her, can lead the country to elections. With their choice, they have the elections in hand: It’s either more than 80 votes in the box for Vjosa Osmani, or over 500,000 votes in the ballot for the VETËVENDOSJE! Movement.”

By Saturday evening, a solution appeared to have been found, as LDK’s deputies took their seats in the extraordinary session to elect a new president. But over the following hours it emerged that the latest political drama does not yet have a conclusion.

Whether or not Osmani ultimately becomes president, after the divisive events of the past 48 hours the task of representing the “unity of the people” seems to have become a little bit harder.K

Feature image: K2.0.

Additional reporting by Dafina Halili.