Perspectives | Minority Rights

The minority party votes debate demands internal reflection

‘Easy’ votes have long been manipulated by ‘strong men’ politicians.

It is a sad, old story that the majority’s politicians or political parties across Europe use the Romani community for their own purposes. 

Before elections, politicians visit Romani neighborhoods with food or money and promises of a post-election paradise to obtain votes. If this isn’t enough, some threaten the marginalized Roma to cast their ballots for the “right” person or political party; marginalized Roma are aware that not following the requests of the “strong men” can have negative consequences. 

At the same time, we see some Romani representatives who opt to align with a mainstream political party to promote their personal interests or those of their community. We also see structures of the majority hijack Romani political entities for their own purposes without consent — just because they can. 

We have seen in Kosovo’s past how voters and political representatives from the marginalized Romani, Ashkali and Egyptian communities, have had their votes misused to support the political entities of both Kosovo Albanians and Kosovo Serbs. 

Rather than analyzing the reasons for this outcome, accusations against the Romani swiftly followed.

Now, in the aftermath of the recent Kosovo elections, we have witnessed a rise in degrading and discriminatory statements against Romani people and one of their political entities following the surprising 3,827 votes cast for the Romani Iniciyativa (RI) — according to the preliminary vote count

In the February 14 poll, RI became the strongest political entity among the Romani, Ashkali and Egyptian communities, winning two of the seats reserved for the three communities in the Kosovo Assembly. 

Allegations followed that RI has been set up by Srpska Lista or Serbia’s government. Reportedly, Serbs were told to vote for RI in order to gain these two seats, which would allow Srpska Lista or the Serbian government to extend their control in the Kosovo Assembly beyond the 10 seats that are reserved for representatives of Kosovo Serbs. 

Rather than analyzing the reasons for this outcome and thinking about ways to better involve the communities in policy-making, accusations against the Romani swiftly followed. 

Competitors from the Romani political spectrum and a representative of an Egyptian political entity that has lost its seat in the Kosovo Assembly joined the accusations. They requested a review of the election results, even proposing that the two seats should not be allocated to RI. 

Firstly, let’s take a closer look at what happened.

A time-honored tradition

A look at the numbers quickly reveals that it is not possible that all of the almost 4,000 votes for RI were cast by Romani people. 

In the Serb-majority municipalities of Leposavić, Kllokot and Partesh, RI won 244, 147 and 88 votes, respectively. According to official data, however, few if any Romani live in these municipalities; the 2011 census suggests only 9 Romani are registered in Kllokot and none are registered in Partesh, while 2018 data from the OSCE suggests between 12 and 64 Romani live in Leposavić.

Such obvious discrepancies can be seen in other municipalities too. 

In Skenderaj, Romani, Ashkali or Egyptian political entities won 104 votes in the recent election, while OSCE data suggests just 11 individuals declare themselves to be from these communities.

The idea that it is somehow a new phenomenon for minority parties to receive support in “unexpected” locations is misleading.

In Malisheva, 31 citizens claimed to belong to one of the three communities in the last census but in the election their political entities received 177 votes — 129 of these went to PDAK, a party representing the Ashkali community. This looks as though it will prove important for seat allocation, as the preliminary vote count shows PDAK has just 134 more votes than its competitor PAI and is set to win the seat for the Ashkali community in the Kosovo Assembly.

An analysis of results in other municipalities shows a similar story.

But the idea that it is somehow a new phenomenon for minority parties to receive support in “unexpected” locations is misleading. 

For example in 2019, Romani, Ashkali and Egyptian parties received 80 votes in Kaçanik despite the last census registering just six people from these communities; in Gllogovc, where just two community members are officially registered, these parties received 160 votes.

It is clear that it is not unusual for Romani, Ashkali, or Egyptian political entities to receive more votes than registered citizens of these ethnicities in a given municipality. 

On the one hand this is partly due to the fact that only some of the members of these three communities disclose their ethnicity in census data. However it could also be because members of other communities vote for them for other purposes. 

One of these purposes for Kosovo Albanian political parties could be that you need far fewer votes for a reserved seat in the Kosovo Assembly than for a “normal seat” — somehow “promoting” a minority party candidate who will later vote with you in the Assembly is therefore an easier way of gaining influence than earning votes through regular campaigning.  

In the case of Kosovo Serb political parties, one purpose could be that they would like to ensure more than the reserved 10 seats. 

Transitional arrangements in Kosovo’s Constitution meant that until the 2010 elections, minority parties could more easily secure additional seats in the Assembly by passing the minimum threshold for “general seats”; in 2010 Serb political entities won three “general seats” to give them a total of 13 Assembly seats, and a Turkish and a Bosniak entity each won. But since those arrangements came to an end at the 2014 elections, seeking to control seats reserved for other communities has become an alternative manner of increasing their influence in the Assembly.

On the other hand, it is not an uncommon phenomenon for members of the Romani, Ashkali, Egyptian, Bosniak, Gorani, Turk, Montenegrin, Croat or Cerkezi (yes, they exist in Kosovo) communities to vote for Kosovo Albanians or Kosovo Serbs political parties, or for parties from other communities. 

Everybody has the right to vote for parties of other ethnic groups and until now nobody has really challenged this. Why should a member of the smaller communities — or anyone else for that matter — vote for a political party of their own community? 

The impact of exclusion

In addition to those who vote for parties of other ethnicities, many people from minority communities simply choose not to vote at all.

According to the most recent census, 2,899 persons are registered as Roma in Prizren — in reality there are many more. But in this month’s election, which had the highest overall turnout since 2004, the four Romani political entities collectively received just 922 votes in Kosovo’s second city; less than the only Romani political entity to compete in Kosovo’s first elections in 2001. 

In Peja it’s a similar story. According to the Municipal Office for Communities and Return 3,000 Egyptians, 1,300 Roma and 200 Ashkali live in the municipality but in February’s elections, the Egyptian parties got 975 votes, the Romani parties 176 votes and the Ashkali parties 35 votes.

It is hardly a surprising outcome, given that over the last 20 years, we have seen all governments more or less ignore the specific situations of communities such as the Roma, Ashkali, Egyptians, Gorani and Bosniaks.

Not a single government, including UNMIK, has treated them as equal citizens.

After 20 years of international presence and 13 years of independence, the Romani, Ashkali, and Egyptian communities, in particular, are still regarded as second-class citizens and face racism. A look at the data on employment, education and housing support this fact. 

Kosovo’s public institutions have a constitutional obligation to employ members of these communities, but all previous governments — be it at the national or local level — have ignored these legal duties. 

Kosovo also has a Ministry of Communities and Returns, but in reality this has de facto been a Ministry for Supporting Kosovo Serbs and Municipalities with a Serb Majority.

Members of other communities are aware that not a single government, including UNMIK, has treated them as equal citizens. 

For years, those same people have accepted it when the manipulation and misuse has come from their own “big guys.”

They are aware that they can exercise political influence only when their votes are needed by the political parties of Kosovo Albanians or Kosovo Serbs. At this point, politicians or the government swiftly promise support to their representatives to get their votes on an important decision or get somebody out of jail so that he can participate in important votes in the Kosovo Assembly or exert pressure in other ways to secure votes for the “big guys.” Otherwise they are ignored or ridiculed.

While there is clearly no way one can argue that RI won two seats solely from the votes of the Romani community, it is frightening to see how quick society and politicians are to accuse Roma and their representatives of manipulation and fraud when they are misused by the “big guys” of others — for years, those same people have accepted it when the manipulation and misuse has come from their own “big guys.”

It is even scarier when we consider the impact of irresponsible media reporting and an irresponsible statement from a public official on Roma. We should not forget that in 2019 a Romani woman was attacked twice in public on the streets in Lipjan and Ferizaj following incorrect allegations on social media.

Despite the recent election results, and the questions that have surrounded the support for RI, the vast majority of the Roma, Ashkali and Egyptians see Kosovo as their home country, irrespective of whether they live in Prizren, Gjakova, Ferizaj or Gračanica. 

The current events should be a wake-up call for politics and society to finally start working on the genuine inclusion of marginalized communities so that they know they are a part of Kosovo and that they are treated equally. It will be up to the new government to finally start with the real inclusion of Roma, Ashkali and Egyptians and develop a long-term program combating racism and promoting social inclusion. 

The new government should involve Roma, Ashkali and Egyptians meaningfully in policy-making and not only on paper, demonstrating that Kosovo is ready to accept them as equal citizens. Such an outcome will be a win-win situation for everybody, and it would create the litmus test for RI on whom they actually represent. 

This election should be a wake-up call to reconsider how effective and real participation of ethnic communities can be ensured. This does not mean that the reserved seats should be abolished, but that a meaningful participation of all communities should be achieved at both the national and local level.

Feature image: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.