Outbreaks of violence and a low turnout marred key local elections in Kosovo on Sunday, the first in which ethnic Serbs have been encouraged to vote since the territory proclaimed independence in 2008.
One woman was seriously injured when masked extremists stormed a polling station, attacking voters and election commissioners and destroying ballot boxes in the ethnically divided town of Kosovska Mitrovica, Belgrade-backed Serb mayoral candidate Krstimir Pantic told reporters.
Polling stations in the Serb-run northern part of the town closed an hour before the official close of voting at 6pm as a result of the violence.
There were also outbreaks of violence at several other polling stations, candidate Oliver Ivanovic said.
“The vote was interrupted by violence... it is clear that the elections in northern Kosovska Mitrovica have failed and probably will be declared invalid,” Ivanovic said.
The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, which had a key role in organizing the polls in northern Kosovo, said it was withdrawing its staff from the town.
“The security of our staff was compromised and we decided to remove all our staff,” spokesman Nikola Gaon said in Pristina.
The election of deputies and mayors in 36 Kosovo municipalities is being watched closely by Brussels as a test of relations between Pristina and Belgrade after a historic EU-brokered deal in April to normalize ties.
Serbia rejects Kosovo’s independence, but has openly backed the polls, urging the minority Serb community in the breakaway province to vote and have their say in Pristina-run institutions.
The participation of Serb voters is seen as crucial to the poll’s success. There are about 120,000 ethnic Serbs living in Kosovo, about 40,000 of whom live in the north, where they make up the majority and enjoy control over some public institutions.
Many Serbs have expressed concern that voting in the election would give legitimacy to the Kosovo government.
Serb hardliners in the north have actively campaigned for a boycott of the polls and there were reports of voter intimidation.
“Some groups are not allowing voters to cast their ballots,” Valdete Daka of Kosovo’s central election commission said.
One supporter of the boycott, Igor Vojinovic, said refusing to vote was “the only way to save the Serb state” in northern Kosovo.
However, Serbian Prime Minister Ivica Dacic warned that “all calls for boycott and threats are endangering the Serbs’ survival in Kosovo.”
Kosovo, the territory which sparked a war between Serb forces and ethnic Albanian rebels in 1998-1999, remains the main stumbling block to Serbia’s bid to join the EU.
The April deal with Pristina helped Serbia secure the green light to begin membership talks with Brussels and holding up its end of the accord is vital for Belgrade.
Despite Belgrade’s vocal support for the polls, the boycott campaign seemed to have had an effect — the election commission said turnout among Serb voters in the north was only about 13 percent.
Preliminary results of the poll are expected tomorrow.