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RPCV Tim Belay observes Elections in Albania
RPCV Tim Belay observes Elections in Albania
SPECIAL TO THE FROSINA FOUNDATION
Tim Belay, a Senior Producer at WBUR Radio in Boston, was one of sixty- two Americans selected to participate in the OSCE Election Observer Mission in Albania for the June 29 elections. Mr. Belay was also a member of the first group of Peace Corps Volunteers to serve in Albania, from 1992-94.
A Closely-Guarded Vote: June 29th Elections a Success
By Tim Belay
When we arrived at the Italian military base in Vlore two days before the elections, the commander had a joke ready for us. He said he wasn’t his usual self because he had not slept well the past couple of nights. The reason: gunfire he had grown so used to hearing had all but stopped.
An organizer of the Observer Mission who had been in Vlore for three weeks said he hadn’t had to use his alarm clock much since arriving, since he was usually awakened at around 5:30 AM by the sound of grenades exploding in the Adriatic Sea. Adolescent boys were “fishing." But with election day around the corner, there was a feeling in the air that the majority of citizens wanted to concentrate on the business at hand, even in this troubled region where much of the March anarchy began. There were more people on the streets during the afternoon in Vlore on election weekend than there had been over several preceding weeks, a sign that things had settled if only temporarily into a relative calm.
My observation partner was an Austrian civil servant named Dietmar who had a precise manner and a sixth sense for detecting rule-breakers. We saw some strange things, but agreed that for the most part, the polling site committees had tried to conduct the voting in a free and fair manner. Indeed, the elections have been deemed acceptable by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) with “no major irregularities” reported.
Since our team was assigned to visit villages in the area immediately north of Vlore, we were given front and back military escort by heavily armed Italian marines. The area was expected to be dangerous. The marines took their jobs looking after our safety very seriously, providing a feeling of security which allowed us to carry out our work.
Observers throughout the country scouted out their polling sites on Saturday the 28th with a handful of objectives in mind. We wanted to meet the members of local election commissions and tell them of our plans to observe the following day’s elections. We needed to map out our day so as to be able to efficiently cover the rural territory we had been assigned. We also had to decide on our “primary polling site.” This is the site we would visit first thing in the morning to watch the local commission set up the polling place, and revisit at the end of the day to observe the vote-counting. Here is how we chose our primary site:
Mid-afternoon Saturday we pulled up to a very fancy private compound featuring armed guards at several strategic locations and massive 25-foot tall gates separating the “haves” inside from their less fortunate neighbors. We knew a polling site was nearby but weren’t quite sure where. We knocked on the gates and out came the guards and several of the men they were guarding, including the chairman of the local polling site commission
As we were making introductions with the help of Nandi, our 17-year-old interpreter, the chairman noticed the name of a man we’d been told was the deputy chairman of his local commission written down on our list of sites. He went berserk. He wanted to know who had given us this name. He said it was a big mistake. He said the man would not be joining the commission the following day because he was not feeling well. In fact, in this era of armed Albanian citizenry, it was common for some commission members to take the 29th off for safety reasons. After the shouting subsided, we told this same chairman we would return to observe on Sunday and he said, “Fine. Come tomorrow morning at seven and we will have all the results ready for you.” When Nandi and I relayed all of this strangeness to Dietmar, he said, in his precise way, “Ve vill observe this von!” Since the chairman was actually swearing at us when he should have been saying his good-byes, it was easy to agree with Dietmar’s choice for our primary site. The site was also the largest single precinct on our list and was accessible for an easy return to our barracks in Vlore after the counting was finished on Sunday night. Curiously enough, the village was named “Fitore.”
Sunday morning the polls were scheduled to open at seven but Fitore didn’t get things rolling until after eight. There was the minor matter of a machine gun inside the polling place, which was promptly removed in accordance with the rules. Considering the circumstances, voting went smoothly once all the set up had been completed. Voting in groups or “family voting” was very common, but most of the other conventions you’d expect to see at a polling site were in place.
Before long we were off to another nearby site which we had been told would feature a roadblock to outside traffic on election day. This was early evidence of what we would see much more of as the day progressed. People who believed they had parliamentary elections stolen from them in May of 1996 were going to extraordinary measures to protect their votes in June of 1997. There was momentary confusion as the marines mobilized to move the obstruction while I thought it more appropriate to ask permission first. To make matters worse, we were in a ravine and our military escorts at first feared we had driven into a dangerous trap. We then learned that there was an alternate road into the village. We took the alternate and made it through and completed our second visit without further incident.
When we visited the various sites (ten throughout the day) we had a series of standard questions to ask, one of the first of which was, “Has your site been visited by any independent observers or members of the media today?” But because it came early in the questioning and required a yes or no answer, Nandi wouldn’t get halfway through the translation before he would be interrupted by a loud chorus of “no’s.” Commission members invariably jumped to the mistaken conclusion that we were about to ask if there had been any problems at their site. That question came later in our interview.
Likewise, when asked what time the polling place had opened, another loud chorus of “seven, exactly!” was the result. Of course they didn’t know about our experiences in Fitore.
The European “powers that be” devised a plan for making sure people voted only once, but it wasn’t carried out as they had envisioned. Spray bottles of special ink were distributed along with miniature florescent lights. Poll workers were supposed to spray the left thumb of voters as they departed the polling site and then check left thumbs with the special light as people entered. Deviations from the plan included spraying of the ink as people entered, spraying the right thumb, people refusing to be sprayed, workers saying they didn’t need to spray voters’ thumbs because they knew them personally, lights not working, and workers ignoring of the spray process altogether. The OSCE plans to rethink this one.
When we returned to Fitore at the end of the day, everybody was tired but braced for the task of manually counting the votes and filling out lots of documents to make it official. The counting was done very efficiently and the commission members really seemed to know what they were doing. A handful of the five hundred or so ballots were set aside because they lacked the proper signatures by commission members or because they had been marked improperly by voters. The socialist party won overwhelmingly at this particular site.
We had just worked three very long days in very hot and dusty conditions and felt pretty good about it. Most of our meals had been Italian military “c rations” and we had slept on cots in barracks fashion. It was time to sleep, but the city of Vlore had other plans in store. Dietmar had joked that there had been so little shooting during the two nights prior to the election because people were saving their ammunition for election night. Dietmar was right.
By 10 PM, the skies were bright with red tracer fire and the machine gun fire was constant, punctuated with louder bursts from heavier weapons and exploding grenades. It was more fascinating than fear-inspiring for most of us, until we learned that some observers still had not returned to the base.
Everyone eventually returned safely, but it was around 11:30 PM when we were told there was a need for observers to help out at the Zone Electoral Commission, where results for the region were being tallied. After much confusion, we left the base in two jeeps--this time with big tanks as our front and back military escort. The building we were going to had been like a war zone just two hours earlier. On the way, our caravan made an unplanned stop at a polling site in the city of Vlore. It turned out to be good fortune for the man in charge of the site. Like many polling site commission chairmen, he had holed up with his ballot box because he didn’t think he could safely transport it to the Zone Headquarters. He squeezed into the back of our already-crowded jeep with the big white box and had himself a very safe trip to the place where the regional results were being compiled.
This is significant when you consider there had been debate about whether part of the Multi-National Protection Force mission would be to provide secure transit of the ballot boxes to the zone headquarters. Officially, it was not. But no one felt uneasy about bending the rules to help out this particular gentleman. Just by chance, I saw my only masked gunman that night too. He was doing what a lot of armed individuals across the country had been doing all day and all night--guarding his polling site.
About Albania’s referendum on a return to monarchy: Our OSCE Observer mission was confined to watching the election of deputies to parliament, but disputes over the voting on the monarchy question have been the subject of many protests, one of which turned violent and resulted in injury and loss of life. Was or is there a particular yearning on the part of the Albanian people to return to the days when there was a king? Not really. His support seems to be comprised of a combination of his kinfolk from the north and those who felt an experiment with monarchy would be worth a try. While two-thirds of voters opposed the monarchy, Leka has vowed to continue his fight to restore it.
Tirana erupted in gunfire on Monday night June 30, after Sali Berisha conceded defeat. It was loud, but we were getting used to it and the shooting wasn’t directed at us. I never actually saw anyone fire a gun, even after ten days in a country where most families have recently acquired one. Our days in the hills around Vlore were safe and enjoyable. Others who did not have military escorts were harassed but not harmed.
For the preparation, briefing, and debriefing business before and after the June 29 voting, the 62-member American delegation of observers stayed at a nicely-appointed private hotel overlooking Tirana from the hills of Mt. Dajti. On our final night together, the International Foundation for Election Systems, which had recruited and organized the U. S. contingent, threw us a nice party. Dinner was followed by dancing outdoors on a modern dance floor under a tent.. Everything went smoothly until around midnight, when someone sneaked up the hill below the hotel and fired off several dozen machine gun rounds at what appeared to be close range. Party-ers ran for sturdier shelter and the music halted. It was a final reminder of the sounds people in Albania have grown used to hearing at night.