Naharnet

Polls Open in Kosovo in Key Test for EU Ambitions

Kosovo voted Sunday in snap polls seen as a key test for the country's EU ambitions and for Prime Minister Hashim Thaci, an ex-guerrilla chief who has dominated politics since independence six years ago.

Nearly one in ten people throughout Kosovo had cast their ballots by 11:00am (0900 GMT), the electoral commission said.

However all eyes were on the turnout from the Serb minority in the north, voting for the first time since Kosovo broke away from Serbia, where first reports indicated a low percentage of voters at the polling stations.

A high turnout from the 120,000-strong Serb community would be seen as a boost to Thaci's dream of joining the 28-nation European Union, after last year's historic agreement on improving Kosovo's ties with Belgrade.

Although Serbia still rejects Kosovo's independence, it has encouraged Serbs to vote, to strengthen the 2013 deal which allowed it to begin its own EU entry talks.

The 46-year-old Thaci is seeking his third term as prime minister but faces a potential backlash from voters in one of Europe's poorest countries who are angry about a sluggish economy and high unemployment.

"Our state is a new European country with huge developing opportunities that we will use in the interest of the people," Thaci said after casting his ballot in downtown Pristina, accompanied by his wife.

Thaci's popularity soared when the former independence rebel announced a break from Serbia in 2008 but political analyst Nexhmedin Spahiu said it was far from certain he would win re-election since "he has been weakened politically by his failure to address the main challenges in our society."

Landlocked Kosovo has one of the lowest living standards in Europe, with average monthly wages of 350 euros ($476), nearly half the population living in poverty and some 12 percent in extreme poverty.

Unemployment is stuck at 35 percent, rising to 55 percent among the young, according to the Kosovo Statistics Bureau.

At one polling station in Pristina, a dozen people queued up to cast their vote as soon as booths opened.

Following the elections "I expect the economy to improve and our youth to have jobs and prospects and not to be on the street or seeking asylum in the West," 65-year old pensioner Daut Shalla told AFP after casting his ballot.

Nazmi Jashari, 67, was less optimistic. "The government that has ruled the country up until now has not been up to the task and we should replace them," he said.

The poll comes amid growing discord in the 120-seat parliament, where Thaci's Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK) had just 32 MPs and had been ruling with support from junior coalition parties and a minority Albanian party.

Observers expect a tight race between Thaci's center-left PDK and the center-right Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK) led by former Pristina mayor Isa Mustafa.

Some 1.78 million voters are registered for the election, with polls closing at 1700 GMT. Preliminary results are expected next week.

Serbs in the north seemed reluctant to take part in the polls, although Belgrade this week urged the minority to turn out.

"Participation... and support for Serb representatives at these election is the civic and patriotic duty of every Serb citizen in Kosovo," the Serbian government said in a statement on Thursday.

But many Serbs ignored the appeal. According to local electoral officials, only three percent of some 27,000 registered voters in the flashpoint northern Mitrovica town had cast their ballot by 11:00 am. Similar or even lower turnout was reported in other Serb-dominated towns in the north.

Dragojlo Simic, a 73-year old pensioner said he voted as Serbs "need deputies in the parliament of Kosovo who will not work for Thaci but for our state and for us."

Dragan Maksimovic, a 38-year old lawyer, decided not to vote.

"I do not like the way official Belgrade is treating us, trying to convince us that they know what is best for us.

"It means nothing to have Serb MPs in the Kosovo parliament as they would be looking to Belgrade and don't care about our problems," Maksimovic told AFP.

Source: Agence France Presse


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