Kosovo’s 2021 snap parliamentary elections – Almost majority, but is that enough?

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Balkans & EU Policy Brief Series nr. 1.

In the space of one year, Kosovo had three governments: Haradinaj’s government that collapsed after his arrest, Kurti’s short-lived government with a reformist strategy, and an unstable Hoti government that focused on reversing the changes brought by Kurti to a state captured status quo. Political instability and turmoil are providing constant ‘breaking news’ that weaken citizens’ trust in democracy and chances for improvement.

During the week when Kosovo celebrated its Independence Day, February 17th, marking 13 years since Kosovo’s declaration of independence, latest elections results poured in. The country held another snap election, the sixth since 2010. This analysis presents a chronological evolution since 2019’s resignation of Prime Minister Haradinaj, indicators of political instability found in the fabric of policy making, the outcome of Sunday’s elections and what it all means for Kosovo’s fragile democracy.

2019 to 2021 – 3 governments, a pandemic and dramatic party politics

In 2019, after the resignation of Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj (leader of the AAK party – Alliance for the Future of Kosovo), in July 2019, and a failed political negotiation to form a coalition government, the members of Parliament (the Assembly of the Republic of Kosovo) voted in favor of dissolving the Parliament.

The elections for a new legislative took place on October 6th, the electoral system in place in Kosovo being an open list proportional representation one (the Sainte-Laguë method of seats distribution). According to international observers, 2019’s parliamentary elections were considered as the most well-organized and democratic. For the first time since Kosovo’s independence, the winners of the legislative elections were not parties emerging from the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) while in the same time, the political platforms of the parties brought to the polls a high number of voters and out of these a significant percentage of young first time voters.

Vetëvendosje (LVV – social-democrats) and the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK – conservatives) winning 50.8% of the votes, they formed a governing coalition on an anti-corruption platform. Vetëvendosje’s leader Albin Kurti was appointed Prime Minister and Vjosa Osmani, LDK’s leader, as chairwoman of the Assembly. All the while, Prime Minister Kurti found himself in a difficult institutional relation with Kosovo’s President Hashim Thaçi (leader of the Democratic Party of Kosovo – PDK) who’s party placed 3rd in the election.

The governing alliance between LVV and LDK was an unnatural collaboration between parties with diametrically opposed views and plans – young social democrats and traditional conservatives. On one hand, LVV promoted a reformist agenda focused on anti-corruption and freedom from state capture. On the other hand, LDK was a party that governed twice in coalition with President Thaçi’s PDK, being a party seen by many analysts as traditionalist. seeking party appointments and that is reluctant to drastic changes. A clash between newcomers and the old elites. Due to these differences between the parties and their leaders, the coalition struggled to reach agreements on forming a functioning government.

Negotiations to form a government lasted 4 months but immediately after announcing the government cabinet, internal conflicts emerged. LDK won over the arguments and imposed a new President of the Assembly, a position with a pivotal role, being one of the three main position in the republic. Over the months, LVV struggled to handle both the internal reforms and the external agenda (especially in relation to Serbia, negotiations in Brussels and in relation to Washington), proving to be a challenge that continuously eroded the relation between LVV and LDK.

In addition to disagreements on foreign policy, Kosovo’s government also faced political storm triggered by the COVID pandemic. President Thaçi capitalized on this crisis, leading a campaign to destabilize the government coalition who already was weakened by divergent views and messages coming from Prime Minister Kurti and Deputy Prime Minister Avdullah Hoti. While all other strategies were put on hold in order to manage the health crisis, this situation opened the governing coalition to vulnerabilities and further deepened the conflict inside the coalition. As one can observe hereinafter, the influence over political leaders and their decisions its multifaceted and unpredictable, being a major source of instability and being open to further events in the future.

Arguing that President Thaçi convinced the Minister of Internal Affairs, LDK’s Agim Veliu, to declare a state of emergency without consultations inside the coalition and without a consensus at governmental level, Prime Minister Kurti dismissed Minister Veliu. In turn, this led to the collapse of the governing coalition after a no-confidence vote introduced by LDK in March 2020, motion supported by the other opposition parties in Parliament (the Alliance for the Future of Kosovo – AAK, the Social Democratic Initiative – NISMA, and the New Kosovo Alliance – AKR). The poor dialogue between coalition partners, blended with impulsive political decisions and precipitated opposition coalitions indicates to a certain degree a pattern of decision making in Kosovo that hinders the country’s capacity to roll-out sustainable changes.

Without the practical option of organizing elections, due to restrictions and health safety measures in place for managing the COVID pandemic, President Thaçi pushed for a new governing coalition while still incumbent Prime Minister Kurti advocated for elections to renew the legitimacy of the Assembly.

Albin Kurti remained in office but was contested by LDK’s leader Avdullah Hoti. In May, the Constitutional Court ruled that a government can be formed by one of the former coalition members, in this case a coalition led by LDK replacing LVV who won with an advance of only 1.72 percentages and only one additional seat in Parliament initially.

In June, LDK’s Avdullah Hoti was elected by the members of the Assembly (61-24 votes) as Prime Minister. All the reforms started by the former Prime Minister Kurti were halted or reversed. The political mechanisms that allow for easily unwinding previous government’s changes without consideration of their short-term impact on society is another recurring event in Kosovo. In the same time, LDK’s General Council dismissed Vjosa Osmani from the party’s leadership, arguing that Osmani publicly opposed the party’s decisions. In turn, LDK elected incumbent Prime Minister Hoti as leader of the party.

After three terms in the Assembly, the most voted woman in Kosovo, speaker of the Assembly (and first woman to hold this position) at the moment of her dismiss from the party, Osmani resigned from LDK. For a while she did not join any other party and made a number of public statements about possible a collaboration with LVV, while other analysts weighted her chances of establishing a new political party. In the same time, Osmani maintained her position as speaker of the Assembly.

In November, Kosovo’s President Hashim Thaçi (leader of the Democratic Party of Kosovo – PDK), in office since April 2016, was charged of crimes against humanity at the Hague, resigning from office. According to Kosovo’s constitution, the speaker of the Assembly, Osmani, took over the presidency of the country, independent of any party membership.

In December, the Constitution Court ruled that a vote of an MP representing the Ashkali Party of Integration was not valid, the respective MP being convicted of fraud, which invalidated the entire voting of the governing cabinet which in turn triggered new legislative elections in Kosovo.

As forecasted by some analysts, Osmani sealed a political alliance with LVV and along with former Prime Minister Kurti are forming a coalition tandem as Prime Minister and President in today’s elections. For how long will such a coalition function and how effective it shall be, one can only wonder.

Election results – Is 48% enough to reform a captured state?

The main contenders for the legislative elections were Vetëvendosje (LVV in translation “The Self-determination Movement”), having as candidate for Prime Minister Albin Kurti and for Presidency Vjosa Osmani (to be elected by the Assembly), Partia Demokratike e Kosovës (PDK –in translation “The Democratic Party of Kosovo”), having as candidate for Prime Minister the incumbent Avdullah Hoti, Aleanca për Ardhmërinë e Kosovës (AAK – in translation “The Alliance for the Future of Kosovo”), in an electoral alliance with Partia Socialdemokrate e Kosovës (PSD – in translation “The Social Democratic Party of Kosovo”), who did not nominate a candidate as Prime Minister but having Ramush Haradinaj, a former Prime Minister, expected as candidate in the presidential election.

With 100% of the votes counted, the winners were the opposing Self-Determination Movement (LVV), receiving 47.85% of the votes, and the Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK), receiving 17.4%. Albin Kurti’s almost 48% is just shy of an absolute majority, thus LVV being unable to form a government by itself (especially if we consider the 20 seats reserved for ethnic minority parties that can swing the vote). Having in mind that each legislative recorded a number of MPs that switched sides, it must be taken into consideration the risk that such a practice can go both ways: in the advantage of LVV or against it, finding itself without a majority in the Assembly.

For once since 2001, Kosovo will have a government that does not include either the LDK or PDK, parties that dominated the country’s post-war establishment. For Kurti’s LVV to form the necessary majority in the Assembly, they will most likely rely on the support of a non-Serbian ethnic minority party. With LVV’s opposing parties, the LDK and PDK significantly weakened politically and internally, LVV is expected to govern without major difficulties or political challenges.

As unpredictable as the politics in Kosovo are, one can only expect dramatic evolutions and turn of events. LVV already proved its inexperience in governing and as political leaders find themselves at rest, during governing, they might find themselves encouraged to challenge after a while Kurti’s leadership, thus triggering internal conflicts and instability. This would not be unprecedented considering that in 2018 a centrist faction broke away from the party. After last week’s election, one should take into consideration the option that Kurti and Osmani will consider different paths at some point.

In terms of rule of law and anticorruption, it is expected for LVV to implement institutional reforms that could improve Kosovo’s EU prospects in the longer term. Most likely, as declared, LVV will seek to improve institutional quality by introducing a vetting process for judges and prosecutors as well as the heads of the intelligence agency and police. The payment structures of judges, prosecutors and police officers are likely to be examined with a view to their increase. The powers of the anticorruption agency will be expanded to enable verification of the wealth declarations of public officials, while a new specialized agency will be established to investigate high-level officials.

Having these objectives in sight, will LVV be able to provide on its promises without falling under the pressure of party clientelism? The experience of LVV’s three months in government during 2020 proved that it appointed individuals affiliated with the party and its allies to the boards of the state water, post and railway enterprises. Even if this is far from the practices labeled as ‘state capture’ and attributed to other parties in Kosovo, the noticeable tendency to prove strong leadership by Kurti can open LVV and the governing to significant vulnerabilities.

Radu Vladimir Răuță is a PhD candidate at SNSPA Bucharest. His academic research focuses on anti-corruption policies and developments, with a focus on the Western Balkans and the role of various actors in promoting rule of law. Contributor to the development of international standards and best practices on anti-corruption and whistle-blowing systems, he blends know-how from the experience of consulting work for public and private organizations with a passion for academic research into the root causes of corruption and how it could be tackled.