Kosovo votes amid pressure to reboot Serbia talks

AFP , Sunday 6 Oct 2019

Members of an election commission count votes at a polling station in northern Serb-dominated part of ethnically divided town of Mitrovica, Kosovo, Sunday, Oct. 6, 2019 AFP

Kosovo voted Sunday for new leaders who will be under pressure to tackle corruption at home and resolve tensions with former war foe Serbia, a lingering source of instability in Europe.

Around 1.9 million citizens were eligible to cast ballots until 7:00 pm (1700GMT) in the former Serbian province, which unilaterally declared independence in 2008.

The main parties did not release any immediate results by early evening.

But two exit polls, by a TV station and a NGO, put opposition parties LDK and Vetevendosje in the lead -- ahead of the parties led by former guerillas who have dominated Kosovo politics since independence.

The two opposition camps share little in common ideologically but would likely need to join forces to oust the PDK, the party in power since 2007.

With no one expected to carve out an absolute majority, coalition talks could last for days or weeks.

- Frozen conflict -

Sunday's snap poll was called after then prime minister Ramush Haradinaj, a former guerilla commander, resigned in July to face questioning by a special court in The Hague investigating war crimes from the 1998-99 separatist conflict with Serbia.

The West is hoping the vote will offer a chance to re-energise talks between Kosovo and Serbia, who have yet to normalise ties two decades after they clashed in war.

Kosovo is still struggling for full recognition on the world stage.

Kosovo needs Serbia -- and its allies Russia and China -- to accept its statehood so it can get a seat in the United Nations.

Belgrade is also under pressure to make peace with Kosovo in order to move forward with its EU accession process.

Yet their EU-led dialogue has been at a standstill for more than a year, with frequent diplomatic provocations souring efforts to build goodwill.

While the dialogue is the main point of concern in Brussels and Washington, ordinary voters are far more concerned with issues like high unemployment, widespread graft and poor healthcare.

"We need freedom, a state governed by the rule of law, prosperity," voter Mentor Nimani, 47, told AFP in Pristina shortly after casting his ballot.

"I would like to have more social stability, employment," and better "basic primary services like healthcare and education," added Fat Limani, a 30-something voter in the capital.

- 'Let them negotiate' -

If the dialogue with Belgrade does resume, one of the most sensitive issues will be settling what powers to grant Serb-majority administrations in Kosovo.

There are approximately 40,000 Serbs living in the north and 80,000 scattered in and around a dozen enclaves in other parts of Kosovo, whose population is mainly ethnic Albanian.

Serbs have 10 reserved seats in parliament, a bloc that could be decisive in coalition-building.

The dominant Serb party is Srpska Lista, which considers itself an extension of Belgrade.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic has been urging Kosovo Serbs to vote for the party, leading critics to decry an atmosphere of intimidation.

For the first time Pristina has required voters there to show Kosovo documents, causing some tensions in the afternoon but no serious incidents.

Many there are also weary of the so-called "frozen conflict".

"Let them negotiate, but I don't believe in it. Nothing will come of it," Jokic Svetomir, a 70-year-old Serb in the north, told AFP.

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