RPCV Observes Election Day In Lizrazhd

 After his Peace Corps service in Turkey (1965-67), Ken Hill was a staff member who left the Peace Corps in 1975 to pursue personal business interests. In the mid-90s he and his wife Winnie (Nepal 1966-68) returned to Peace Corps where Ken was Country Director first for the Russian Far East, then Bulgaria and Macedonia. In 1999 he became Chief of Operations for Peace Corps programs in Europe and Asia and was appointed Chief of Staff of Peace Corps during 2001. Now retired, Ken is engaged in numerous volunteer and political activities. He is active in local and Virginia politics, on the Boards of the Bulgarian-American Society and the Friends of Turkey and the Alexandria, Virginia Sister Cities Committee with Gyumri, Armenia. He was an advisor to the Obama / Peace Corps Transition Team and is a former Chair of the Board of Directors of the National Peace Corps Association.” When not involved with all that he has been an observer of international elections. Observers are provided by OSCE member states and must have relevant experience; including professional election officiating or observation.  Most also have extensive international experience. Before observing in Albania, Ken had observed elections in Kazakhstan, Bosnia and Kyrgyzstan; and has lived and worked-as a PCV and Staff–in Turkey, Russia and Bulgaria and visited 40 other countries.  Here is his report for our website on his recent election observation in Albania.


Election Day In Librazhd…

This election would determine a new Parliament and inaugurate a new parliamentary system. There was a wrinkle. Instead of counting the votes at individual Voting Centers, ballots were to be secured and delivered to a regional center to be counted. Several past Albanian elections observed by the OSCE had proven near debacles. Experience suggested that the count was a potential source of mischief and needed to be performed under tighter control and transparency.

When all waiting voters had cast their ballots after 7pm, the ballot boxes at Voting Centers were sealed, official documents completed and stamped. All were then escorted by various election officials and observers, under police protection, from the Voting Center to the Counting Center, often miles away and across mountainous terrain. The Counting Centers could not begin the count until all ballot boxes due from the district were received.  In some cases this was not until early the next morning.

OSCE observation teams are paired from different countries. Kirsten Loehr of Berlin and I were Observation team #08-12. Assisted by a qualified translator and reliable transport, our task was to observe the handling of the ballot boxes and the counting of the ballots.  Our colleagues of team #08-11 had spent their 15 hour election day shift observing various Voting Centers in Librazhd district.  At the end their day, they accompanied the ballot box from the last Voting Station they observed as it was taken to the Counting Center.

Delegations from Voting Stations began arriving at the Librazhd Counting Center shortly after seven that evening with ballot boxes and documents in tow.  Vehicles maneuvered haltingly through crowds on the street edging for parking space. Groups of officials from Voting Stations huddled around their ballot boxes and crowded the entrance while police feigned control and citizens of all stripes seemed to enjoy the fray.

Performing their official duties yet compelled by traditional amiability, villagers, election officials, observers, politicians and police all greeted their friends and colleagues with gusto in the haze of the pleasant summer evening.  Citizens expressed themselves with true Balkan enthusiasm while exercising their civic responsibilities. Voting Center officials had been at their posts since six that morning but their fatigue was now overcome with dedication and pride!  Democracy in Librazhd, Albania that evening was noisy and inspiring.

The Count…

Elections in Albania are administered by committees of partisans from the Central Election Commission to local Voting Stations.  Each operation is run by local representatives from the major political parties under a theory that a system of political opponents working together is most likely to assure integrity in the election process. One might speculate whether this approach is more effective than officiating by non-partisan citizens, but it certainly results in some interesting dynamics that play out on the electoral stage.

As the count proceeded, excessive enthusiasm often interrupted the process. Observers were reminded of the rules and sometimes reprimanded which resulted in brief relief.  Six carefully watched counting teams worked through the numerous ballot boxes.  Each team consisted of at least two but no more than four members selected by the Counting Center Commission, the pool consisting of designated partisans representing political parties and/or coalitions, a balance being mandatory on each team.

A designated Secretary, responsible for official documents and ballots, handled each ballot, first to verify that they had all been officially stamped – twice – and then to place them in the appropriate stack for each party once the intent of the ballot had been determined. To afford transparency in this process, every ballot was placed under a video camera twice, first to display the two required stamps and then the preference of the voter.  Each time, the ballot could be viewed on a separate TV monitor for each counting team.

As the count for each ballot box was officially reported to the Counting Center Commission it was transmitted electronically to the Central Election Commission.  Delays often occurred in transmitting the count due to contested ballots, disputes over the security of a ballot boxes or the need for an official decision by the Counting Center Commission.

Albanian politics, old or new…

One hundred forty seats are available in the Albanian Parliament. Political parties scramble to form coalitions; in this election fourteen parties and coalitions made the ballot. Ironically, a week after the election, the certified count allocated 70 seats to the Democrats and 65 to the Socialists with a small splinter party offering the latter a possibility of one more seat. 

Sali Barisha, the Prime Minister at the time of the election, heads the Democratic Party ticket. A principal in Albanian politics for decades, dating from the Communist days, he is both respected and reviled as a traditional politician, characterized as divisive and corrupt, he’s also credited with pushing Albania westward. During his current term, Albania has joined NATO and its economy has improved – with substantial assistance from the Western democracies.

Party loyalists and operatives are said to be motivated primarily by the spoils of power versus more altruistic objectives.  This perception was contested by a number of elected officials and local party leaders with whom I spoke. They contend that while true in the past, change typifies the Albanian political scene in recent years. While there was no question that corruption still plagues Albania, the situation might be improving.  In Transparency International’s 2007 comparative report on corruption, Albania moved from 105th to 85th

During the count in Librazhd, the younger brother of a Member of Parliament sat beside me in the middle of the night. He spoke excellent English and we discussed various aspects of the election process sans my interpreter.  We discussed why the U.S. does not have a national system of voter identification. My response was that Americans were more comfortable leaving that to local jurisdictions versus our national government.  At the heart of it were concerns about integrity, competence and control.  He was fascinated that Americans have historically espoused such a healthy skepticism about the role and power of government.  I suggested it was one of our strengths.      

How to monitor an election…

The protocols for observation by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) are precise, thorough and typically consistent between countries and elections. Its Election Observation Missions are provided on a voluntary basis to member countries that commit to the basic principles for democratic elections that are a condition of their OSCE membership. Election observation by the OSCE is a rigorous business, respected as the gold standard in the field.  

OSCE’s election observation program is managed by its Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) whose goal is an “Accurate & Objective assessment of the electoral process”. Observers must remain uninvolved in the process, reminded often and forcefully that their role is objective observation, not to advise or even express opinions about the process underway and never to give guidance or direction! 

In a typical OSCE observation mission, teams throughout the country observe the campaign, beginning as early as two months before the election.  They also prepare for the arrival of the short-term election observers.  On Election Day, data is gathered from across the country by hundreds of these trained and experienced observers – 400 in the case of Albania. The data is transmitted every few hours during Election Day and into the night as long as counting and tabulation are underway.  A group of professional analysts receives and analyzes the data which forms the basis for ODIHR assessments which results in ODIHR dictums discussing the electoral process and its consistency with OSCE principles.

Tomorrow’s Albania…

Albania serendipitously avoided much of the Balkan tumult of the last half century but paid a steep price for its deep isolation under a repressive autocracy. The dissolution of Yugoslavia and the rise of democracy elsewhere in the Balkans encouraged Albania’s fledgling democracy.   

There is much to overcome for Albania including an ethnic division between sub-cultures in the north and south. This poses implications for economic and political interests as well as corruption issues. Albania aligns itself with the ethnic Albanians of Kosovo and other countries in the Western Balkans which sometimes makes its neighbors nervous. Ethnic homogeneity provides needed stability while religious piety in the predominate Muslim and Christian populations is moderate, unlike much of the Balkans. 

The Albanian shore on the Adriatic is an extension of the Dalmatian coast.  With Greece and the Aegean to the South and Italy across the Adriatic, Albania is well positioned. As its tourist facilities are developed and its many attractions “discovered”. Albania may become competitive in tourism providing a major economic opportunity.

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