Head of ODIHR mission on “Absolut 4”: We’ll be present in the regions as well as in urban centers

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Urszula Gacek: Thank you very much for the invitation. It’s a pleasure to be here and to be able to tell you something about why we have a mission here for the 15th time now in Albania.

Merita Haklaj: Yeah. Let’s begin with the first question. You have spent already a few days in Albania and you are with a core of experts and initially at the head of 20 long term observers. What are the main challenges you will have to face during the election campaign, which has just officially started? What do we expect in a preliminary report?

Urszula Gacek: Well, of course, covid has impacted everything that we have been doing everywhere in the world in the past year, including the format of our election observation missions. It also changes the way election campaigns are run. So they make a big difference. In fact, the role of the media, the social media, you, is going to be much more important when rallying is limited. It also has meant that we have had to change some of our own format. You rightly said we’ve been here for over a week now with a team of 13 experts, international experts. And on Friday we dispatched another 24 long term observers in two person teams throughout every region in Albania. But we had hoped that we would also bring around two hundred and fifty of our own short term observers just before Election Day. And unfortunately, because of travel restrictions not here in Albania, but in their home countries, we have, like we have on many other missions in the past year, had to resign from that part of the mission. So we’ve had to change the format a little bit, but I’m still very optimistic that we will deliver a very good and comprehensive and fair report for you.

Merita Haklaj: Just to be clear, we will have the two hundred fifteen fifty observers or not. No, we don’t. And for other missions, for example, assembly of all OSCE or Council of Europe or NATO, we are used to have them in monitoring process in Albania. Are they coming or not?

Urszula Gacek: Some are coming. We already have confirmation from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, of which of course, Albania is also a member. The OSCE Parliamentary Assembly I know are coming. I have no information about NATO and the European Parliament, which also often sends its parliamentarians, in the last year they haven’t been really engaged in missions. So I don’t know whether they’re going to be here with us. But the parliamentarians who come will be joining us on the mission and we will be using their support and their resources to feed into our report as well.

Merita Haklaj: How many observers from the ODIHR we may have? Do you have a

Urszula Gacek: Well, you have the thirteen quoted core and the twenty four long term observers. So that is the proper sort of ODIHR election observation mission.

Merita Haklaj: And the election Day. They we know?

Urszula Gacek: It will be the parliamentarians who will support us there, but we will not have our own short term observers, as I mentioned, because of of Covid travel restrictions. But we’ve done I just did a very big mission in the United States and we managed to do a very good report, a very comprehensive report in the United States with not much bigger a team. So it is possible.

Merita Haklaj: Since 2017 vote buying has returned to the level of the OSCE priority recommendations to be addressed urgently, such recommendations are also to not violate the secrecy of vote or pressure on the administration, as well as the use of state resources during campaign. Reading the Needs Assessment Report of ODIHR, we noticed that you have been recommended to be especially vigilant during the campaign, before the Election Day, how you are going to manage this because these have most interest for the Albanians.

Urszula Gacek: Well, I’ve told you a little bit about how this mission is different from what we had anticipated and what we have had in previous years. But when it comes to, you know, we’ve just started the campaign last Thursday, Friday. And we were already here before the campaign officially started, so somebody might say, “what are they doing in the country five weeks before the election?” Is exactly to be following some of these questions. And Albania is not unique in this. How are state resources being used, is something that we follow in every country. It’s the same standards, the same methodology. Of course, certain problems are more prevalent in some countries than in others. So that’s why we have the Needs Assessment Report, which kind of focuses in on those particularly problematical areas that we have seen in the past. But we’re not prejudging. We don’t know what we will see this time. And practices like vote buying are notoriously difficult to pinpoint because they are a criminal activity. So, of course, nobody really comes to us with solid evidence generally, but we will have eyes and ears in the regions. It’s very important for our long term observers to be out and away from the big, you know, the main major urban centers. We want them to be in the little rural areas, in the villages, in the suburbs. And these people are very experienced. So they have a good eye for practices that might not be in line with international standards.

Merita Haklaj: You have where to refer for these. What do you think are the hottest areas as far as have you seen or others have told you? Or what have you noticed so far? The use of criminal groups in certain areas in Albania is a very well known. This is the reason why we have the decriminalization law for the parliament and the officials in public administration. For the implementation of this law we have much of pressure from ambassadors here, the United States and European Union,

Urszula Gacek: The decriminalization law is not new to this election. And we’re, of course, looking at the registration process of the candidates. We know that in fifteen cases there were some doubts and the Commissioner has sent those for verification to the Prosecutor’s Office. So we’re looking at the entire process. But there’s nothing new in this election. And we do not prescribe how the list should be, a closed list or an open list. Both are quite acceptable, but by our standards. But for the first time, Albania has an open list. This means that if you’ve chosen your party, which reflects your, I don’t know, ideological convictions, then you can choose the candidate. The people in the region, they know their candidates well. Yes. So this is an extra layer, I think, which should inspire trust, because if somebody thinks, well, this person is not going to be a very good candidate, they now have the option of actually picking exactly the candidate they want on the list. So it is an extra layer of choice for the voter.

Merita Haklaj: So this is the message for the voters.

Urszula Gacek: Well, you know, the voters know their candidates. They know who are in the in the region. This adds to the transparency of the process. It adds to the kind of democratic process. Well, let’s see how it goes. It’s going to be a challenge for the voters, of course, because for the first time, they have a new format. They will have a different… Before it was very simple. Now they’re going to have a booklet and something with many names. So we’re also looking at how the whole voter education program goes, because it’s important that people don’t make a mistake. So they need to know how technically also to cast their vote.

Merita Haklaj: Yeah. What impressions did you create during the meetings with representatives of political parties and or even for the role of president of the Republic, Ilir Meta?

Urszula Gacek: Well, we reach out to all the political parties. I mean, even the smaller ones I will probably meet, given my other duties here with the main political parties. And those meetings already started on Friday. And I have a whole series coming this week as well. And it’s very important. They’re all stakeholders. The president indirectly, he’s not you know, he’s elected indirectly. He has a mandate at the moment. But he is an important stakeholder in that he is a guarantor of the Constitution. So we have also reached out to his office and we hope that we might be able to meet with him or his representatives. What they tell us, they tell us, I think, quite freely, openly. But I think that we also respect their confidence. I mean, I think they have to know that they can speak to us freely about their concerns. You know, I’m a former politician, so I understand how politicians think. Of course, they’re in the middle of their campaign. So they’re also extremely busy. But not only I and my political analyst meeting the heads of the you know, the campaign staff here and the party leaders here in Tirana. But with these 12 teams out in the regions, they’re also going out they’re following the campaign activities. They’re meeting the local party organizations. So we really want to get an understanding. And the concerns they have, the worries they have. They know they have somebody who they can voice those to. It is for us to sift through all that information. And of course, everybody has their point of view and everybody has some kind of bias. So we have to try and get to the truth of the matter and find where the facts, where the evidence really lies.

Merita Haklaj: You mentioned it before based on the recent experience with the United States elections. Do you see in Albania a tendency of contested elections from the political parties?

Urszula Gacek: I’ve never known an election not to be contested. I’ve run in a few myself, and every election is fiercely contested. You know, people get very passionate, the candidates get passionate, the electorate gets passionate about it. I mean, what we see in general, I think internationally we see a decline in the standard of the language. Because people are much more able to comment on social media. We do see a rise in in language which maybe goes beyond what is acceptable in the political discourse. But that is not unique to Albania. And we do have a media monitoring element in our mission. So we’re looking at how much air time and how much media space all the candidates and parties are getting, whether that tone from people like yourselves is neutral, positive or negative, but also as much as we can, we are flagging up. There was a big violation of of standards in terms of really nasty rhetoric, especially if it attacked somebody’s, I don’t know, because they’re a minority, because they’re a woman. These things we do we do comment on in our reports as well. I’m not saying we’re going to see that in Albania. I’m just saying that we see a general tendency internationally for the language of campaigning to be much more divisive, much more, I don’t know sometimes, as I said, going a little beyond what we would hope, but we won’t have in a studio like this. But on social media especially

Merita Haklaj: And as a former politician, as you mentioned before, what do you suggest to the media? Because we have a law from 2003 and the chapter of the Electoral Code is very old and comparing how the media has developed, how campaign of political parties has developed, and the social media, as you mentioned it. There is a big difference from early 2003. It might be very difficult for the media, traditional media.

Urszula Gacek: As I said, we have the media component. And if after this election, when we write our final report, which actually doesn’t come until two or three months after we leave the country, if we see that there are shortcomings in the legislation where media and elections meet, then we will make the recommendations. But it’s far too early to say what we will see. But we’re working also closely and meeting with the regulatory authorities here. So, of course, media played such an important role. And as I mentioned at the very beginning, because there will probably be fewer rallies face to face interaction, the role of the media will be greater than ever before.

Merita Haklaj:  We have another form of central electoral commission with three scales and then the Electoral College. Have you spoken to them? Did they express concern of how they are going to implement the law and manage the process, the campaign and the voting process?

Urszula Gacek: It’s always one of my first visits. I mean, my first visit is always to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs because all the foreign and European affairs in the case of Albania. Because they are formally our hosts here, we are here at the invitation of the Albanian government. My second visit is always to the Central Election Commission. If there is one and there is one here in Albania, and very helpful. We have established our contact points because there are a lot of issues they’re dealing with. Voter education, the new biometric IDs. There’s a lot of new things going on for this, for the Election Commission. So both my legal analyst, my election specialist, my new voting technology specialists, now have their own contact people, and they are almost daily in touch with representatives of the Central Election Commission. And, of course, it is a major challenge for them to implement the new systems, the new method of voting, and to make sure that everything works on the day. We’re not here now as advisers. We’re just here as observers. So we we don’t interfere in the process in any way. But as I said, we are observing and and the only way we can do that is to be here in the Commission, but also, again, out in the regions, because that’s where we will see it. How are the local level commissions prepared? Do they have all the materials they need? So this is something that, of course, in these days and weeks coming up to the Election Day, we’re following very, very closely.

Merita Haklaj:  Is there a specific time where when the preliminary report or for there will come?

Urszula Gacek: We have a standard time for that. The preliminary report, which we prepare a preliminary statement in cooperation with the parliamentarians who join us. So it’s actually a joint statement. That is always published the day after the election. And we also have a press conference, early afternoon on the day after the election, which is not the end of our work. We’ll see how how far the counting is because the counting is going to be more complex this time. So it is probably… We will probably know how the parties have done and we might not know which individual candidates have secured a seat. And then, of course, we still stay. We’re staying until the 7th of May. Why are we staying for a couple of weeks after the election? Well, because there is still a process going on. Somebody might say that something was wrong. They have the right to appeal. There might be cases in the court. So we have to see that play out before we leave. And then sometimes we’re even following things remotely. If issues have not been resolved when we leave, by the time we write our final report, generally everything is wrapped up. And hopefully people, the politicians are generally thinking about the next election

Merita Haklaj:  And the before the election day. Are we going to have a report?

Urszula Gacek: Yes. You will have something between now and Election Day. It’s called an Interim Report, but it doesn’t have any any conclusions yet. I mean, put it like this. This will really show where the focus areas are. OK, then we have the preliminary statement, which gives us now quite a good picture of what happened up to and on Election Day. But with the on the understanding that we will not have because of the limited presence, a statistically significant sample of voting, counting and tabulation, it’ll be more anecdotal in that part. And then the final report has the recommendations. So there are three separate reports. Each serves a different function. Of course, everybody wants to know what we think of the election, but we never, ever say what we think before we have gathered enough information. We come with a very open mind. We know about what what has happened in the past, but every election is new, every election is unique. And so we observe first report afterwards and recommend at the very end.

Merita Haklaj:  Ambassador Gacek, as expert of elections, monitoring them, observing them, and as a former politician, do have a message, a final message for the people of Albania?

Urszula Gacek: Vote, that’s all. Vote, use your Democratic right. That’s the most important thing. And it’s really very much. Of course, there are so many stakeholders. But I am more… People say: “Do you have somebody who you are really kind of supporting, somebody you’re really rooting for an election?” It’s always the voters. It’s always the voters. So my message is go out and vote to use that democratic right. I know the history of Albania. I know. I’m Polish. We also had a communist dictatorship. It was nothing as severe as what you had here in Albania. So it’s great that you have a democracy. And let’s hope that these elections are as good as they can possibly be and that the electorate go out and make use of that vote

Merita Haklaj:  Free and fair elections.

Urszula Gacek: That’s what we all hope for.

Merita Haklaj:  We didn’t have them in 30 years of democracy.

Urszula Gacek: Well, that is your opinion, but you definitely didn’t have them before the 1990s. that I can agree with.

Merita Haklaj:  Many thanks for the interview, Ambassador, and I wish success in your very important duty.

Urszula Gacek: Thank you very much for your interest. And I will look forward to hosting you at our press conferences when we do actually have something to say about what we did see here in Albania. We’ll be on the twenty sixth of April.

Merita Haklaj:  Yeah, we’ll be there for sure. Thank you again.

Urszula Gacek: Thank you. It was a real pleasure.