Kosovo votes tomorrow in elections expected to install a former guerrilla leader as the prime minister who will lead the province's majority Albanians to independence.
The parliamentary and municipal polls called by the UN mission in Kosovo are being staged less than a month from a deadline for the conclusion of last-ditch talks on the future status of the disputed Serbian territory.
"Immediately after Dec. 10, we will take decisions to make Kosovo an independent and sovereign country," said Hashim Thacim, who is the preelection favorite for prime minister.
So confident of independence, all major parties have focused campaigning on the economic problems facing Kosovo, which with an estimated jobless rate of 40 percent is one of Europe's poorest regions.
Thaci, likewise convinced he will become the first prime minister of an independent Kosovo, has promised to spend 1.6 billion euros (US$2.3 billion) on the construction of 800km of roads.
The 39-year-old hopes the plan will appeal to younger voters, saying: "This project will modernize the country, create new jobs and a Kosovo that everyone will be proud of."
At stake in the elections are 100 seats in the 120-seat assembly reserved for parties representing ethnic Albanians who comprise around 90 percent of Kosovo's 2 million population.
The rest of the posts are set aside for Serbs and non-Albanian minorities such as Roma, Slavic Muslims and Turks.
Fighting it out to form a government will be Thaci's opposition Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK) and the ruling Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK).
The LDK of outgoing President Fatmir Sejdiu won the most votes in the two elections held in Kosovo since NATO's 1999 air war drove out Serbian forces waging a brutal crackdown on separatist Albanians.
However, it appears to have run out of fresh ideas and has relied too heavily on the image of Ibrahim Rugova, the late president and pioneer of the push for independence.
Agim Ceku, who has filled the role of prime minister since his predecessor Bajram Kosumi resigned under pressure almost two years ago, is not contesting the elections.
Recent opinion polls showed Thaci's PDK leading with around 31 percent of the vote, ahead of the LDK's 29 percent.
Thaci's party "will win the elections thanks to divisions within the LDK," local political analyst Qani Mehmedi said.
It "has seriously transformed its political philosophy ... turning from the former guerrilla party to a modern party," Mehmedi said.
The opposition ORA party of media magnate Veton Surroi was expected to garner the youth vote, but many believe the biggest surprise could come from the New Kosovo Alliance party of an even richer businessman, Behgjet Pacolli.
Pacolli, a construction tycoon who made his fortune in Russia and the former Soviet bloc has promised to lead Kosovo as though it was a "big company."
"Our party is the light at the end of a tunnel," Pacolli said, promising to restructure government with only six ministerial posts as in the US, thus reducing budget expenses.
"We need a strong president and efficient government -- democracy is nice, but this is the Balkans and it needs strict control," he said.
However, there is a shortage of candidates who appeal to non-Albanian minorities such as Serbs, whom the government in Belgrade has urged to boycott the vote.