A man sometimes called the Ghandi of Kosovo surged toward victory in the province's first multiethnic elections over the weekend.
The victory of Ibrahim Rugova, an ethnic-Albanian pacifist, is seen by many as a step closer to ultimate independence of this deeply divided region. His margin of victory, however, is narrow enough that he will likely have to share power with his erstwhile Serb opponents to become the province's president.
Voters elected a 120-seat national assembly, which will then choose a president and form a provincial administration. The governers will govern alongside the United Nations officials and NATO peacekeepers.
The province has been run as a virtual UN protectorate since 1999, when Serb forces were forced out by a NATO bombing campaign and ground invasion to end persecution of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo by the regime of Slobodan Milosevic, who now awaits trial for alleged atrocities at the UN International Tribunal for War Crimes in the former Yugoslavia at The Hague.
At a triumphant news conference, Mr. Rugova claimed that his party, the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK), had won as much as 70 percent of the votes cast Saturday. However, exit polls conducted by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) indicated that the LDK had garnered between 45 and 46 percent in the landmark contest.
Figures compiled by the Kosovo Action for Civic Initiatives, a think tank and NGO support center in Pristina, gave Rugova's party 44.7 percent. The rival Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK), composed of former Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) fighters, took an estimated 23 percent, and the Alliance for the Future of Kosovo (AAK), another ethnic-Albanian party, had 9.5 percent.
The main Serb coalition group contesting the election, Povratak (Serb Coalition for Return) was expected to receive 21 seats in the parliament, says Hylber Hysa, who is director of the think tank and is considered one of the most astute ethnic-Albanian political analysts in Kosovo.
"Rugova is going to have to form a coalition whatever happens," Mr. Hysa says. "What will be interesting to see is whether he does so with the AAK or with the Serbs, if they would agree to enter government with his people."
Negotiations and horse trading on the complexion of the provincial government are expected to drag on for at least a week in the run up to Nov. 28, which is Albanian national flag day, an important occasion politically in Kosovo, observers say. Official results are expected to be released today or early this week.
According to Drago Fils, a veteran commentator on Balkan affairs for Slovenia Radio, Rugova will need to form a coalition to achieve his ambition to be elected president of Kosovo no matter what the final result is. "Rugova will need to ally with the AAK or the Serbs to obtain the two-thirds majority in the assembly to be elected president," Mr. Fils says.
Although relatively few violent incidents marred the voting and election campaign, there may yet be demonstrations, Fils predicts. Hundreds of ethnic-Albanian politicans ran on tickets of some 20 parties that failed to get 5 percent of the vote, excluding them from the nonelected assembly. "These are people from extra-right groups who campaigned for Kosovo to become part of the state of Albania," Fils says. "For them, their being defeated by Serb politicians is anathema. The Serb deputies will have to be escorted into the assembly building in armored vehicles of KFOR [the NATO-led Kosovo Protection Force]," he adds.
Rugova, known for his opposition to political violence, also won local elections held in Kosovo in October 2000, in part because of widespread revulsion at links between the former KLA and organized crime gangs.
The minority Serb community boycotted that contest, and appeared headed for a repeat this time. But the Yugoslav President, Vojislav Kostunica, in a last minute turnaround, urged Serbs to participate in the provincial elections, saying it would facilitate the return to Kosovo of Serb refugees who fled to avoid revenge killings by the KLA and other ethnic Albanian gunmen.
Turnout was 65 percent for ethnic Albanians and 46 percent for Serbs living in Kosovo, according to OSCE. About 800,000 people went to the polls.
Hans Haekerrup, the Danish UN governor of Kosovo and its 2.5 million inhabitants, says the turnout was a vote of confidence in the democratic process. But Fils says the turnout was disappointingly low given how much was at stake.
International officials made much of the fact that Kosovo Serbs even took part in the vote, saying it bodes well for reconciliation between two communities on opposing sides of the 1999 war.
Fils believes that initially Rugova, once elected president of Kosovo, may stop short of declaring unilateral independence, but could ask foreign countries to recognize the new government of Kosovo as sovereign and independent of Serbia.