Why Kosovo's uneventful election is a step forward for the Balkans (+video)

Kosovo's last vote was marred by widespread fraud and a boycott by ethnic Serbian voters. But Sunday's general election, which Serbs took part in, was free and fair, observers say.

By , Correspondent

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    Hashim Thaci, Kosovo's prime minister and leader of the Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK) gestures to his supporters after the party claimed victory in Pristina today. Mr. Thaci claimed a third term on Sunday in an election marked by a low turnout among Kosovars frustrated with widespread poverty and corruption.
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The most important news from yesterday's general election in Kosovo may have been that, as compared to the last election, the polls went off without a hitch.

According to preliminary results, Prime Minister Hashim Thaci's Democratic Party of Kosovo won about 31 percent of the vote, with the Democratic League of Kosovo coming in second at about 26 percent. But as important, if not more so, observers reported that yesterday's vote was fair and credible, unlike the last general elections in 2010, which were marred by widespread fraud.

In addition, the parliamentary vote was the first to see participation from ethnic Serbs in northern Kosovo since Europe's youngest country declared independence.

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Northern Kosovo borders Serbia and has been outside Pristina's control; ethnic Serbs in that area largely boycotted the vote in 2010. But this year, they participated in the election following an agreement signed by Serbia and Kosovo last year to normalize relations. Though Serbia has not recognized Kosovo's independence, which Kosovo declared unilaterally in 2008, Serbia's efforts to join the European Union hinge in part on normalizing relations with its new neighbor.

There was none of the violence yesterday that disrupted voting in north Kosovo in last year's municipal elections, but voter turnout in the majority-Serb area was low, with observers at times outnumbering voters in some polling stations.

Analysts say the uncontroversial election may be a modest step forward, but challenges remain. Fisnik Korenica, director of the Pristina-based Group for Legal and Political studies, called the participation by Serbs in north Kosovo “a step toward entering Kosovo institutions but not true integration.” With some ethnic Serb politicians in Kosovo answering to Belgrade, their participation in Kosovo's parliament or government will give Serbia a role in Kosovo's internal politics, he notes.

Yet negotiations with Serbia were hardly mentioned in parties' campaigns. Most focused on an issue that has become one of the most pressing to voters: high unemployment and low salaries in one of Europe's poorest countries. Mr. Thaci's party made sweeping promises to create new jobs and raise wages. It is now working to form a coalition government to implement those pledges.

Besides public pressure to create jobs, Thaci, a former leader of Kosovo's guerrilla army, will also face investigations into alleged war crimes. Thaci and four top members of his party are accused in a 2011 Council of Europe report that alleges the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) harvested and sold organs from Serb prisoners of war during the 1998-99 conflict. NATO intervened in the conflict in 1999 to stop Serbian forces from killing and expelling ethnic Albanians, who make up the majority of Kosovo's population.

A European Union task force investigating those allegations is expected to release its findings soon. Kosovo has agreed to a special court, to be set up abroad, to try those from the KLA accused of war crimes. Thaci has denied the allegations and says the tribunal will prove them to be false.

Some saw the election turnout yesterday – reported at about 43 percent – as disappointingly low. Analysts note that the true number is significantly higher, because voter rolls are still populated with names of the deceased and those who have left the country.

But Besa Shahini, a senior analyst with the European Stability Initiative, says the turnout also shows an electorate that is disappointed with its options. Corruption is rife in Kosovo, and economic opportunities have not materialized in the 15 years since the conflict. Voters “didn’t feel that the change that was needed could be brought to them by the political actors they saw,” she says.

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