Kosovo's prime minister, Hashim Thaci, claimed victory in the first self-held parliamentary elections in the two-year-old state, which still seeks United Nations membership. But voting irregularities – including ballot stuffing witnessed by the US ambassador – are expected to delay a final outcome.
Sunday’s elections were relatively uneventful by Balkan standards. For a tiny landlocked state trying to escape legal and diplomatic limbo, boring may be good if it establishes political legitimacy, analysts say. Kosovo faces crucial talks with Serbia early next year after a decade of official silence from Belgrade, which does not recognize Kosovo.
Serbs in south Kosovo participated in elections for the first time in what may be a sign of further normalization of a new state historically riven by ethnic divides. Yet Serbs in the northern area of Mitrovica, a disputed town that is a seed-bed of Serb paramilitary, continued to opt out.
Mr. Thaci, a former Kosovar rebel and prime minister until snap elections were called weeks back, based his win on independent exit polls Sunday night. He described the 31 percent total for his Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK) a victory for “democratic and Euro-Atlantic values.” Kosovar Albanians are avidly pro-European and pro-American following the NATO intervention of 1999 that effectively separated the territory from Serbia.
94 percent turnout?
But polling problems have cropped up. The US Embassy said today that Ambassador Christopher Dell complained to authorities after ballots in a vote box at Hamez Jashari high school in Skenderaj, a Thaci stronghold that Mr. Dell was observing, "exceeded the number of signatures in the voters' books."
Voting turnout in some PDK strongholds topped 94 percent – though records show turnout had been only 51 percent as late as 4 p.m. This “defies logic,” according to the Foreign Policy Club in Pristina, the capital. Kosovo’s Central Election Commission reported a 48 percent overall turnout.
“Some stations had a 95 percent turnout, which can’t be explained,” says Agron Bajrami, editor in chief of the daily Koha Ditore in Pristina. “Most likely Thaci will be returned, but he may have to wait.”
The main opposition Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK) on Monday used its own exit polls to claim a victory – creating gridlock. The LDK, former coalition partner of Thaci founded by Kosovo father-figure Ibrahim Rugova, won 25 percent in independent exit polls.
The new Kosovo Self-Determination Party of activist-intellectual Albin Kurti, a sharp critic of the UN and a former dissident under Serb rule, did surprisingly well at 16 percent.
How and whether Thaci can form a coalition is the next hurdle.
The role of charismatic figures
Kosovo politics are organized around charismatic figures and not traditional left-right positions. Local issues dominated: visa access to Europe, promises (often extravagant) for economic development, and a very contentious “privatization” question – sales of major enterprises to private companies without transparency or often accountability for funds.
Kosovo is more than 90 percent Albanian, though it is considered a mythic heartland of Serbian identity. It declared independence in 2008 after a decade as a UN protectorate, backed by NATO forces and given development help by the European Union. Unemployment still verges on 45 percent and the state seeks to overcome its image as an unstable conflict zone in order to attract investment.
The EU announced this month it is set to help broker talks between Serbia and Kosovo next year.
Serbs' 'parallel' institutions
In recent years, Serb minorities have controversially tried to establish “parallel institutions” in their Kosovo enclaves. However, the vote by Serbs in south Kosovo on Sunday indicates a willingness to further integrate. A multiethnic Kosovo has been a chief aim of Western policy in a region where ethnic tensions are still tense in Bosnia and Macedonia.
In Kosovo’s first elections in 2008, held under international auspices, only about 1,000 Serbs voted; totals yesterday were as high as 20,000. Unlike Serbs in Mitrovica in the north, Serbs in the south are isolated from Belgrade. Marko Prelec of the International Conflict Group say these Serbs see it in their interest to attempt to join Kosovar institutions.
One Sunday election observer not authorized to give his name said a peaceful and uneventful vote “is good news for Kosovo. Not every election needs to be historic.”
Kosovo attracted the eyes of the world in 1999 after Serb forces were driven out by NATO following a failed mass “ethnic cleansing” campaign by Belgrade. That campaign is seen as part of the late Serb strongman Slobodan Milosevic to create a “Greater Serbia” by killing and forced relocation of non-Serbs.
Some 77 nations recognized Kosovo after it declared independence in February 2008, including the US and most European Union states. An international court at The Hague this summer stated that Kosovo’s declaration was not illegal. In a surprise move this September, Serbia agreed to stop disputing Kosovo’s status in the UN – which in turn has sped Belgrade’s efforts to join the EU.