A former guerrilla leader claimed victory yesterday in Kosovo elections and declared that voters had sent the world a message that the disputed Serbian province was now ready for independence.
In election campaigning, Hashim Thaci of the Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK) promised ethnic Albanians who comprise 90 percent of Kosovo's 2 million population he would "immediately" move to declare independence if elected.
Unofficial results compiled by independent poll observers Democracy In Action after about 80 percent of votes had been counted indicated that Thaci had secured 34 percent of the vote, well ahead of his nearest rival.
Saturday's vote came just days before a crucial round of negotiations in Brussels to decide the future status of the southern Serbian province, whose independence Belgrade's fiercely opposes.
"The citizens of Kosovo sent the world a message ... The strongest message was that Kosovo is ready [for] independence," a triumphant Thaci said to thousands of cheering supporters after claiming victory.
Deadlocked negotiations over Kosovo's future must be completed by Dec. 10, when a "troika" of EU, US and Russian envoys reports to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.
But as many as 55 percent of the 1.5 million electorate chose not to participate in Saturday's polls, a fact analysts put down to voter "distrust" of politicians over corruption and an impoverished economy.
Analysts said the absenteeism was in effect a strong protest vote against the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK), which has ruled in Kosovo since the war in 1999.
The low turnout slashed support for the LDK, the party of late independence icon Ibrahim Rugova, credited with only 22 percent of the vote compared with 45 percent in elections just three years previously.
"Fifteen percent of people experience extreme poverty and live below the poverty line," political analyst Behlul Beqaj said.
In addition, the electorate was disenchanted with politicians' corruption through misuse of public funds, said the head of the European Movement in Kosovo, a non-governmental organisation.
"The majority of the electorate did not take part in the elections, which sends a message of distrust towards the political establishment," Beqaj said.
Legally still a Serbian province, Kosovo has been run by the UN since NATO's 1999 air war ended a conflict that killed an estimated 10,000 Albanians and displaced hundreds of thousands.
The parliamentary, mayoral and municipal polls were massively boycotted by Kosovo's 100,000 Serbs, who did not want to give legitimacy to an assembly that looks set to proclaim independence.
Serbia is against any form of independence and is only prepared to offer broad autonomy for Kosovo, which it regards as the cradle of its history, culture and religion.