About the Author: Leigh Rieder serves as the Assistant Public Affairs Officer at the U.S. Embassy in Tirana, Albania.
Like many former communist countries, Albania is still learning how to implement democracy. We Americans know from experience how difficult implementation can be, because we still make mistakes, despite over 200 years of practice. With that reality in mind, the Public Affairs Section (PAS) held a series of events on the U.S. presidential election to explain various aspects of the election process to Albanian audiences. Electoral reform and the establishment of a reliable voter registry are ongoing challenges here that are impeding the country’s integration into Euro-Atlantic structures. By offering analyses of the U.S. electoral experience, warts and all (think Florida 2000), we aimed to give Albanian policymakers and citizens the benefit of our own hard-won lessons.
We began in late September with a digital videoconference (DVC) featuring noted American University elections expert David Lublin. Representatives of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) working on election issues, political scientists, and lecturers engaged Lublin in a lively discussion of the U.S. electoral system and how the election results could affect U.S. foreign policy.
In October, we were fortunate to snag journalist Jerry Hagstrom, another well-known elections commentator. Speaking primarily to university audiences, Hagstrom used a video show of TV campaign commercials to analyze the candidates’ strategies in the 2008 election. In the process, he elaborated on the crucial role of the media in modern political campaigns. Both the information he presented and his balanced analysis of it impressed the students, who are only familiar with Albania’s more politicized media.
In the days leading up to November 4, the Ambassador and a small army of embassy officers gave many presentations and TV interviews on the election. They discussed everything from the Electoral College mechanism to the cultural implications of the historic candidacies of Senator Barack Obama and Governor Sarah Palin. To supplement those efforts, Public Affairs downloaded an informational brochure on the candidates provided by the State Department, translated it into Albanian, and distributed copies to all of our contacts. We also had the brochure reprinted in the two highest circulation newspapers in the country two weeks before the election.
Our final event was the “Election Breakfast 2008,” which we co-hosted with the American Chamber of Commerce in Tirana early on November 5. Guests could chat with embassy officers, peruse election materials, or watch the latest CNN coverage of the election results while eating a continental breakfast. We also had a mock voting booth where guests could cast a “ballot” for their favorite candidate. The place was thronged with media, some of whom carried live coverage of our event.
Will the PAS-sponsored election events be the decisive factor in Albania’s electoral reform efforts? No, but they form part of a gathering wave of public awareness of and demand for free and fair elections, valid results, and an orderly transfer of power. The election results demonstrated other important things too, such as the continuity value of a professional civil service that remains in place even as elected officials change. In each of these ways, the 2008 U.S. presidential election provided an excellent example of how a democracy decides on its leaders. We in PAS feel fortunate, not only that we witnessed the historic U.S. elections, but also that the electoral process, in all of its facets, gave our Albanian hosts good food for thought – and action.