In 2021, citizens in Kosovo will have the opportunity to elect their municipal representatives for the next four years. These will be the fifth mayoral elections and the seventh elections for members of municipal assemblies since 2000 when the citizens of Kosovo, for the first time, voted for their democratic institutions
How does electing a mayor in Kosovo work?
Despite Kosovo not being a member of the Council of Europe, municipalities in Kosovo are based on the principles of the European Charter of Local Self-Government. In this context, the municipal assembly is the highest body of the municipality and is responsible for approving general policies in the municipality, while the mayor is the executive body that implements policies in the municipality. The separation of powers and definition of responsibilities is done by the Law on Local Self-Government in Kosovo that sets the foundation for the functioning of local institutions.
The electoral system in Kosovo defines the citizens’ right to directly elect the mayor and members of the municipal assembly. Each municipality is a single election area and citizens have the right of electing their representatives in the municipality in which they are registered. The political entity submits the list of candidates for certification for each municipality where it participates in the elections based on the procedures defined by the Law on General Elections, the Law on Local Elections, and the Law on Local Self-Government which determines the number of members of municipal assemblies.
Citizens demand better services
The GAP Institute in Kosovo has studied 25 mayors elected in 2017 who promised better services. The implementation of mayors' electoral promises stands at 47.3%, while promises that have not started at all at 13.1%. In the implementation of these promises, the area of social welfare leads with 74%, while the areas where promises have been least achieved are those of urbanization, education, and culture.
However, “compared to the past, election campaigns at the local level are more substantial and focused on concrete problems. Until 2010, candidates for mayors made promises that were not even in the competencies of municipalities such as solving the issue of electricity, the political status of Kosovo, opening customs points, opening factories for employment, etc. Now, the mayors are more prudent in the promises they make because they know that every promise they make will be monitored and they will be held accountable by the public.
Measuring the fulfillment level of campaign promises aims to hold winning candidates accountable for their promises and program, raise the awareness of candidates aiming for the position of mayors so that they only make promises and plans that fall within their competencies and following legal and budgetary constraints, and implementation of election promises by the winning candidate,” stated Bekim Salihu, Senior Researcher in GAP Institute.
The problem of political parties in coalition with no similarities in their programs
The electoral system for Kosovo municipalities provides the right of a run-off for mayor between candidates that have won the largest number of votes but have not passed the threshold of 50% of the votes. Only in the local elections of 2017, out of 38 municipalities in Kosovo, 19 of them faced a run-off for mayor. This democratic instrument ensures the majority of votes for mayoral elections and makes more responsible the citizens for whom they are voting.
However, it is evident that it causes budgetary expenditures, and has created a situation whereby in the period between local elections and the run-off, coalitions are formed between political parties that have not won the elections and have no similarities in their programs. Moreover, these coalitions created the need for power-sharing between the parties, and in some cases, these coalitions have failed during the management period.
The municipality of Prizren is one example, whereby the current mayor, during the run-off elections, was helped by a political party called the Democratic League of Kosovo, which is different from the mayor’s party. After the elections, they jointly governed the municipality. However, this coalition was dissolved in June 2020 and as a consequence, the mayor currently faces difficulties in implementing his program, as his political party does not have the majority of votes in the municipal assembly that needs for passing the decisions.
The same situation happened in the municipality of Mitrovica between political parties in coalition for run-off elections, i.e. Aleanca Kosova e Re and Democratic League of Kosovo. After the elections, this coalition ceased to exist due to disagreement with the common policies between the parties in the coalition, and as a consequence delaying the approval of projects for the municipality.
According to the legislation, the mayor has the right to appoint directors of municipal directorates. On the one hand, this has positive effects, because the mayor’s successes or failures are measured specifically based on the work and commitment of the staff of the municipality, and the directors are accountable to the mayor. As political appointees, the mayor has the power to replace the directors.
However, frequent replacement of the management does not ensure continuity of work, because most of them are appointed according to political party preferences and not based on professionalism. It is worth noting that in Prishtina, the change of political party in power and appointment of some new directors, who did not have much experience in public administration, delayed urbanism services for some time. This happened in the case of permitting construction of new building and certification of the use of them.
Women in local politics
According to the applicable legislation on elections, a 30% quota for women representation in electoral lists and legislative bodies at local and central level (Kosovo Assembly and municipal assemblies) was set, while so far only one woman has managed to become a mayor (in Gjakova/Djakovica - 2013 elections).
However, the Law on Gender Equality has been adopted since 2015, thus promoting gender equality of not less than 50% in all public bodies, including an increase of percentage in electoral lists. This quota remains a challenge to implement as there is no political will among the political parties to adhere to it. In the last local elections in 2017, political parties have presented the same quota of 30% of women in electoral lists, which are contrary to the principles of the Law on Gender Equality. Despite the lobbying by civil society, no initiative has been taken to align legislation on elections and gender equality.
“Until then, however, it is important for political entities to demonstrate a democratic and inclusive spirit throughout the electoral cycle, with particular emphasis on proportionately compiling electoral lists for men and women candidates in compliance with the Law on Gender Equality. Creating equal space for women and men is a precondition for achieving the level of gender equality we aim,” said Valeza Zogjani at Democracy for Development (D4D).
Following the results of the last parliamentary elections in 2021, and the appointment of six women to cabinet posts in the new government of Kosovo has proved that women can make their mark in politics and this pattern should be replicated in the local elections as well.
“Every single law that comes to the assembly should be seen through the gender lens. You will see us talking and fighting for gender equality, no matter what the topic in the assembly and the government is,” said Vjosa Osmani, the newly elected president of Kosovo.
The way forward?
The Ministry of Local Government has analyzed local elections policies, which includes the need to initiate amendments of the Law on Local Elections. Priority will be given to its harmonization with the Law on Gender Equality, i.e. increase the gender quota to 50%, as well as addressing problems that have been identified in practice such as voting of the diaspora, revising provisions concerning the invalid ballots, the need for a runoff, etc. The preparation of this law before the local elections will be a challenge, considering the priorities that the new government emerging from the 2021 parliamentary elections may have, such as the COVID-19 crisis, economic recovery, and foreign relations.
However, even if the Law on Local Elections is amended, the issue with the appointment of municipal directors is not expected to change, as this is regulated by the Law on Local Self-Government, and to amend this law a double majority of the Assembly of Kosovo is required.
Furthermore, the recent parliamentary elections have indicated that there could be a change in municipalities’ leadership, in terms of the winning political party, in local elections, and the citizens demand better services, even though some progress has been achieved in the last years. This is because the winning party in parliamentary elections, “Vetëvendosje”, has won in most municipalities and because of that changes in the administration, management, and programs for the development of municipalities are expected.
All of these make the upcoming local elections challenging for Kosovo. However, the most important thing for citizens is leadership that ensures the continuation of the provision of effective and qualitative services in municipalities, transparency, and respect for democratic values.