Kosovo headed to the polls yesterday for its first elections since declaring independence in 2008, which look set to weaken Kosovar Prime Minister Hashim Thaci’s grip on power.
The last surveys ahead of the vote showed a neck-and-neck race between Thaci’s Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK) at 30 percent of voting intentions, just 2 percentage points ahead of its main rival, the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK), led by Pristina Mayor Isa Mustafa.
As polling stations opened at 7am, there were already dozens of people lining up to vote in central Pristina, mostly the elderly and people voting before going to work.
“I got up early to vote because I’m not happy with the way the country was led. People suffered while politicians benefited and we have to stop that,” 39-year-old construction engineer Shaqir Zeneli told reporters.
Many in the 1.6 million strong electorate, especially young people, are disillusioned with the current leadership and turnout will be a key factor. A low turnout would favor Thaci, who has a loyal following of partisans in rural areas.
More then 10 years after the war between the independence-seeking Albanian majority and forces loyal to then-Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic, it remains one of the poorest regions in Europe.
It has a jobless rate of 48 percent according to the World Bank. Almost half of the population live below the poverty line.
“If those who have governed the country so far win again, frustration will turn into depression,” said economics student Kreshnik Ahmeti, 21.
His friend Nol Nushi, who also got up early to cast his vote, said he only wanted a government that will do more than the previous leadership.
“I don’t expect miracles but I want a government that will provide the right approach to addressing the problems in our society,” he said.
Kosovo police and local and international monitors are closely watching the vote for the 120 seats in the Kosovar parliament.
Analysts predict that Thaci’s hold on power will weaken as other parties profit from voters’ disappointment. Even if his party manages to remain the biggest in parliament there will be lengthy coalition negotiations and Thaci could be forced to accept big compromises in order to cling on to power.
The vote is the first since the ethnic-Albanian majority declared Kosovo independent in February 2008. Its independence has been recognised by 72 countries, including the US and all but five EU members.
Serbia, which still considers the territory as its southern province, has advised the 120,000-strong Serb minority in Kosovo not to vote.
Despite Belgrade’s stance many Serbs living in enclaves in central Kosovo are expected to cast their ballots. There are 10 parliament seats reserved for the Serb minority but it could go up to 15 if Serb turnout is high.
The snap elections were called after an uneasy ruling coalition imploded in late September.
If more voters, especially the young and people in urban areas like Pristina vote this time, it will favor the LDK and new parties running on an anti-PDK platform, political analyst Krenar Gashi of the Kosovo Institute for Policy Research and Development said.
The Self-Determination party of Albin Kurti, which started out as a populist street protest movement, looks set to become a major force in parliament with 16 percent of voting intentions.