Ian Bancroft in Belgrade -
Kosovo's electorate will go the polls in mid-December after a November 2 vote of no confidence brought down the minority government of Prime Minister Hashim Thaci, meaning further days to crucial reforms and the privatisation programme.
The motion was supported by 66 members of Kosovo's 120-seat Assembly and acting president, Jakup Krasniqi, dissolved parliament. The political crisis stems from a Constitutional Court ruling on September 24 that then president, Fatmir Sejdiu, had violated the constitution by simultaneously holding the position of leader of the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK). Sejdiu's subsequent resignation was expected to prompt new elections in mid-February, before his decision to leave the governing coalition with Thaci's Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK) deprived the latter of a parliamentary majority.
These general elections - which would be the first since Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in February 2008 - are seen by some as an excellent opportunity for Kosovo to demonstrate its democratic credentials. As Roland Gjoni, a legal and justice reform expert based in Kosovo, contends, "Kosovo's political parties must look beyond their electoral interests and ensure free and fair elections that bolster Kosovo's image internationally... Kosovo's reputation will be seriously damaged if election fraud takes place and results are widely contested."
It remains unclear, however, whether or not Kosovo's Serbs, who oppose Kosovo's unilateral secession, will choose to boycott the vote. Besfort Rrecaj, a lecturer at the university of Pristina, for one, hopes that the "participation of all communities... is high [in order] to legitimise the new institutions." He adds that, "it is very satisfying to hear different parties and leaders from Serbia encouraging Kosovo Serbian community to participate... [and] this message should be followed as the official policy of the Serbian Government."
With Ramush Haradinaj, a former prime minister and current leader of the Alliance for the Future of Kosovo (AAK), currently in The Hague awaiting a partial re-trial on war crimes charges, Thaci's PDK are again expected to emerge as the leading party. Critics argue that the snap elections will damage the hopes of certain parties. As Gjoni points out, "although the emergence of two new political parties - namely the Self-determination movement [Vetevendosje] and "New Spirit" are widely seen as a very good news for Kosovo's dull and grim political landscape, the short preparation time available will not allow them to threaten the old political establishment controlled by the former ruling coalition partners."
Whoever triumphs, however, will face a plethora of challenges. As Gjoni warns, "the looming status talks with Serbia, ever rising poverty and high unemployment, the slow pace of privatisation and insufficient economic growth as well as the lack of a clear European perspective are going to put any government in front of a Bermuda Triangle."
Planned talks between Kosovo and Serbia on technical issues are likely to be impacted by the early elections. Belgrade, with one eye already on its own parliamentary elections in 2012, is keen for talks to proceed immediately. However, as Dr Florian Bieber, a professor for Southeast European studies at the University of Graz, tells bne, "such talks make little sense in the pre-election atmosphere... [and] if more nationalist forces make inroads, this might reduce the willingness of any future government to make the difficult compromises necessary. Here the influence of Vetevendosje will be crucial, as it has in the past been extremely popular and uncompromising when it came to negotiations and any compromise."
Gjoni adds that "the new government's legitimacy at home may be undermined soon after the new talks with Serbia resume due to the increased fear that Albanian politicians will be pressured to make further concessions to Serbia, including a special status for the northern municipalities and enhanced autonomy of Serb Orthodox Church."
Snap elections are also likely to further delay the proposed privatisation of a 75% stake in Post and Telecommunications of Kosovo (PTK), which has been foreseen in the International Monetary Fund's (IMF) programmes. PTK - which has 1m mobile phone subscribers - is estimated to be worth €300m-600m, though sceptics fear that PTK's value is being impacted by mismanagement. Projections by Kosovo's economy and finance ministry show that privatisation revenues are key to balancing its budget, particularly given the costs of constructing the Vermice-Merdare highway that links Kosovo to Albania.
With Kosovo struggling to attract both international recognition and foreign investment, free and fair elections are imperative to ensure that the political and institutional crisis doesn't further undermine Kosovo's fledgling statehood. Facing talks with Serbia on technical and possibly status-related issues, the new Kosovo government will struggle to attain the necessary legitimacy to commit to difficult concessions, particularly as more vehement political options opposed to compromise gain in popularity. Without a European perspective, Kosovo's future prospects remain shrouded in a deep uncertainty that will be at forefront of voters' minds when prematurely given the opportunity to choose new leaders.
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