Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

Hanging Chads in Tirana

Are there lessons from Bush v. Gore for Albania?

TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images
TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images
TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images

Twenty years ago last week, despite the concerns of my security detail, I stood atop a wooden platform in the main square of Tirana, Albania, to address a euphoric crowd of 300,000. Tens of thousands more had lined the route that I had just traveled from the airport. As the first senior U.S. official to visit that closed society following the end of more than 50 years of communist rule, my message was simple. "Freedom works," I said. "At last, you are free to think your own thoughts.... At last you are free to choose your own leaders.

Today, as I reflect upon that visit and consider great admiration for the people of Albania, I realize that I could have added another message: Yes, freedom works, but it works best when citizens maintain fervent respect for, and adherence to, the rule of law that provides the framework for an orderly democracy.

This is important to remember as the country's ongoing political gridlock jeopardizes its prospects for further integration into European and global institutions. While Albania joined NATO in 2009 and is considered a candidate country for European Union membership, the country's full accession is hampered by widespread reports of political dysfunction.

Twenty years ago last week, despite the concerns of my security detail, I stood atop a wooden platform in the main square of Tirana, Albania, to address a euphoric crowd of 300,000. Tens of thousands more had lined the route that I had just traveled from the airport. As the first senior U.S. official to visit that closed society following the end of more than 50 years of communist rule, my message was simple. "Freedom works," I said. "At last, you are free to think your own thoughts…. At last you are free to choose your own leaders.

Today, as I reflect upon that visit and consider great admiration for the people of Albania, I realize that I could have added another message: Yes, freedom works, but it works best when citizens maintain fervent respect for, and adherence to, the rule of law that provides the framework for an orderly democracy.

This is important to remember as the country’s ongoing political gridlock jeopardizes its prospects for further integration into European and global institutions. While Albania joined NATO in 2009 and is considered a candidate country for European Union membership, the country’s full accession is hampered by widespread reports of political dysfunction.

The latest example of Albania’s crippling political gridlock was May 8’s extraordinarily close election for mayor of Tirana. The two candidates, representing both major political parties, are among the country’s leading political figures. The race pitted Lulzim Basha of the ruling Democratic Party — a former foreign minister — against Edi Rama, the leader of the Socialists — Albania’s main opposition party. With almost 250,000 votes cast, Rama claims to have a lead of 10 votes, while Basha claims that he is ahead by 81 votes. The winner has yet to be officially declared, and a panel of judges has been reviewing arguments over which ballots should be counted and which should be excluded. The controversy comes against the backdrop of ongoing political turmoil since Albania’s contested general election of 2009, after which the Socialists staged massive street demonstrations over what they saw as serious voting irregularities.

Of course, I am familiar with extraordinarily close elections. In 2000, I headed George W. Bush’s legal team in Florida during the recount of the election there. That recount outcome would determine the next president of the United States. Approximately 6 million votes had been cast in Florida. Following the initial count, the candidates were separated by only 300 votes.

My experience in the Florida recount of the U.S. presidential election taught me several lessons that I think are applicable to the situation in Albania today.

When the margin separating the candidates is razor thin, there can be endless arguments about whether particular ballots were properly counted. Ballot-counting is an art as much as a science, and when an election is so close that every ballot could affect the outcome, it turns out that human judgment has an uncomfortably large influence over the counting process.

In such cases, each side can construct persuasive arguments as to why ballots should be counted in a manner that allows it to win. And wanting to win, of course, each side comes to believe its argument is the only correct one. If its argument is not accepted, it is tempting to claim the election has been "stolen."

When razor-thin elections happen, it is futile to suggest that the two sides should attempt to negotiate a solution or work out their differences through dialogue. There was no possibility of a negotiated solution between George W. Bush and Al Gore in Florida in 2000, and surely there is none in Tirana today. One candidate will win; one will lose.

Nor is it appropriate in such a case to throw out the results and hold a new election. It would be nonsense to tell voters that their vote really matters — except, that is, when an election is so close that their vote could actually determine the outcome.

The only way to deal with cases like Florida in 2000 and Tirana today is to have in place a credible and fair process for resolving the disputed issues of law and fact, and then declaring a winner. And the competing candidates must be prepared to accept the results of that process.

For the Florida election, we had the American court system and ultimately the U.S. Supreme Court. Its role was to listen to each side’s argument and issue a decision that was bound to disappoint one of the two candidates. The United States was fortunate that, in Gore and Bush, it had two candidates who were prepared put the country’s interest above their own ambition.

In the end, as we all know, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Bush. Gore could have rejected that decision and thrown America’s government into chaos. But he didn’t. In fact, Gore’s gracious concession speech was a model of the genre. Of course, I am confident that Bush would have done the same thing had the Supreme Court ruled against him. Both men understood that history would judge them harshly had they put their own personal interest above the interest of the American people as determined by the rule of law.

In the end, America’s system worked. Yes, it was a close election with high emotions on both sides. But there were no riots or tanks on the streets — just some peaceful if vocal demonstrations. The result? America once again experienced a peaceful transfer of power.

Albania is fortunate to have a similar legal framework — its Electoral College hears the appeals of decisions by the Central Electoral Commission — to fairly resolve disputed issues. Albania’s Electoral College consists of eight members chosen by lot from among the country’s appellate judges. The randomly selected members of the Electoral College were appointed to the judiciary at various times by governments of both major political parties. And both of its rulings to date on the Tirana election have been unanimous.

On June 27, the Central Election Commission ruled that Basha had won by 93 votes, though the Socialists are appealing this to the Electoral College, which will now have to rule on the Tirana election for a third time. While the opposition may never be fully satisfied with the result — just as many U.S. Democrats still express frustration with the terms of Bush’s victory in 2000 — what remains to be seen is whether it will accept the ruling that has emerged from the country’s established legal process.

Given the rapturous embrace of freedom and democracy I witnessed 20 years ago, I’m convinced this is the kind of leadership Albanians deserve and want.

James A. Baker III served as the U.S. secretary of state from 1989 to 1992.

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