Saturday, 9 July 2005

Albania revisited / the elections (1)

I just love this post's title, as I also just loved to be back in Albania again. When Cas picked me up from the airport and we drove to Tirana (at night) it really felt like being home again. Strange how you can get attached to a place so easily. But I'm rushing things, let's start at the beginning.

As most of you know I had a traineeship at the Royal Netherlands Embassy (RNE) in Tirana, Albania last summer and that I enjoyed it very much there. The people, the country, the city, the work and what more. When I left in October, I knew that the parliamentary elections would take place somewhere this summer, so I already indicated at the embassy and the ministry of foreign affairs that if there would be an observation delegation, I would love to be in it. Well, there was indeed an OSCE observer delegation and after long begging, bribing, crying, emailing, writing and lot's of other indecent crap I was put on our ministry's list. Thanks to Cas and Simone for that! Although everything was a little late organised our team left last Wednesday (30/6) for Albania to return a week later on the 6/7. Simone and I slept at Cas' place with a magnificent view over Skanderberg Square and having our own bed- and bathroom.

400 Short Term Observers (STOs) from all over Europe and some other places were to see to fair and transparent elections (more about that later). We gathered at the Sheraton on Thursday to be briefed about the country, minorities, parties, electoral system, regions etc. My partner Susan, was an American from the Carter Center and we got the area/city of Kukes as our zone. Zone 12 (of 100) was our hotzone and it turned out to be a rather interesting one. After the general briefing we got a specific briefing of our region from our 2 Long Term Observers (LTOs) who were responsible for zones 9-12.

Kukes is a city in the north eastern part of Albania, next to Kosovo, and is considered a remote area. Believe me, that I have experienced first-hand. A lousy 200km from Tirana to Kukes, took us around 7 hrs! Bloody darn bad roads! The scenery was magnificent, no doubt, but after a while you get to know the bumpy road, the curves and the ups-and-downs. So it took us all Friday to get to our hotel in Kukes. Luckily we had the city and some villages around it as our zone, as the other teams had to travel even further (some stayed the night in Kosovo to get faster to their area).

Saturday we drove with our local guide and interpreter around the area and went looking for some Voting Centers (VCs), to easily get there on Sunday. The rest of the day we slept as we had to get up early on Sunday to observe the opening of a VC. Some villages were a bit further than anticipated, as we had some in our zone that were still 4 hours driving and only some 30/40 km away. Do I need to mention that we skipped those?

Sunday, E-day, we got up at 5, left the hotel at 5.30, and arrived at the first VC at 6.30. The VCs would open at 7, so that gave us time to witness the opening of a VC. Looking if the Voting Center Committee (VCC) would go through all the procedures, set everything up fine etc. The rest of the day we visited another 13 VCs to witness the voting process. I won't mention every VC, but will just give some examples of what went wrong:
  • family voting = the husband (Albania is still a macho country) went in the booth with their wives and crossed the candidate/party or told the wives what to cross.
  • HUGE family voting = one man went in the booth with his wife, she came out and entered the ballots, then his 28 (!!) other family members came in and the guy also crossed all their forms!
  • no signatures on voters lists = no clear if someone voted already or not.
  • no usage of invisible ink or check of it.
  • no check of IDs.
  • big muscled men outside the door of the VC = sign of intimidation.

Enough I think so, don't you? For a country that wants to become an EU member, still a lot has to change. What I heard from some other STOs: people carrying a bunch of ballot sheets on the street to fill them out at home, people asking for more ballot sheets and the VCC answering "you will get some some when the observers are gone". Go figure...

The last VC we visited was also the observation of the closing of a VC, as all VCs should close at 19.00 if there wasn't a queue anymore. After counting the used ballot sheets, closing/sealing all the boxes, we drove with the VCC under police escort to the Counting Center (CC) to hand over the ballot boxes. There we had to wait for an hour as there were already a lot of VCs waiting in front of us. Do we finally get to the point where we can hand in the ballot boxes, the Zone Election Committee (ZEC) refuses to take our boxes in, as one of the boxes has a different seal number than the ZEC has on their list. The ZEC handed out the boxes and seals, so they must have made a mistake noting all the numbers. The boxes are declared irregular and will be send to Tirana. Our VC happened to be the biggest one in our zone, that's why we picked this one last...

Then our job is finally done and B team takes over for the counting shift. It's 23.00 when I get into bed and we have to releave B team at 7.00 again...

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