Thaci set to hold onto power in Kosovan vote despite new challenges

By bne IntelliNews June 6, 2014

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Kosovo’s 1.78m voters will go to the polls on June 8 as concerns over the economy, poverty and corruption rise. The changing focus from the fight for independence has eroded support for Prime Minister Hashim Thaci’s government, and is likely to limit him to a narrow victory.

The conduct of the poll will also help to determine Kosovo’s path towards integration with the European Union. A decision - just four days before the vote - by ethnic Serb leaders in the partially recognised state to drop a planned boycott of the election bodes well in this respect.  

The parliament dissolved itself on May 7 and called snap elections after ethnic Serb MPs refused to take part in a vote on the creation of a national army. With elections previously scheduled for November 2014, divisions within the parliament had become increasingly sharp, raising fears that the opposition could force a vote of no confidence in Thaci’s government. 

A total of 18 political parties as well as several civic groups are fielding over 2,000 candidates in the election. While opinion polls are not seen as very reliable, those carried out so far indicate Thaci’s Democratic Party of Kosovo (DPK) is likely to take the largest share, closely followed by the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK). In the country's last general election in 2010, DPK took 31.2% to LDK’s 24.6%, with the Self-Determination party and the Alliance for the Future of Kosovo coming in third and fourth.

While the run-up to June 8 has been relatively peaceful, there have been some isolated incidents, including an attempt by DPK activists to prevent an LDK rally in Brobonic on June 4. A more serious concern in the pre-election period was a plan by Kosovo’s ethnic Serb minority to boycott the vote. Sparked by issues including the inclusion of Kosovo state symbols on ballot papers, the boycott would have undermined the legitimacy of the election. 

After weeks without a definite sign from Belgrade, on June 4 Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic gave a clear statement on Belgrade’s position, encouraging ethnic Serbs to vote. “[T]he best choice for the Serb people is participation in the elections,” Vucic said. The Serb PM's words were swiftly followed by a statement from the mayors of four municipalities in northern Kosovo that they would abandon the boycott, though they stopped short of encouraging Kosovo Serbs to head to the ballot boxes. 

“Serbs in the north of the province will unanimously heed the state’s call to fulfil their task and take part in the political struggle aimed at realising the state and national interests of the Republic of Serbia by voting in the elections for the assembly of the interim self-government institutions in the Province,” read a statement from Serbia’s Government Office for Kosovo-Metohija, Tanjung reports. 

While it has softened it position significantly in recent years, Belgrade maintains it will not recognise Kosovan independence. However, a successful election with the participation of the 120,000 ethnic Serbs in the north are an important step for both countries towards EU integration and eventual membership. A landmark deal, brokered by Brussels and aimed at normalising relations between the pair was reached in April 2013. 

Changing landscape

Within Kosovo, the political landscape has seen some fundamental changes during the six years Thaci has ruled. Kosovo’s struggle for independence has declined somewhat as a determining factor in politics, and is being gradually replaced by concern over the economy, poverty and corruption. 

One of the burning issues is the planned establishment of a tribunal to investigate allegations of organ harvesting from Serb prisoners-of-war. A 2011 report by Council of Europe rapporteur Dick Marty alleged that Thaci and four high-ranking DPK members had been involved in a group selling organs abroad during the 1998-99 war. An EU appointed task force is expected to publish a report on the issue shortly after the election. 

At the same time, Kosovo’s economic difficulties are weighing on voters. The country remains one of the poorest in Europe, well behind its Balkan peers. The average monthly salary is just €350, and an estimated 34% of the population lives below the poverty line on under €45 a month, according to the World Bank. While Kosovo has substantial mineral resources, development has been held back by regulatory obstacles, leaving the country highly dependent on aid and remittance payments, which account for around 13% of GDP. 

Unemployment is at an extremely high 45%, with youth unemployment as high as 70%. This is “a virtual recipe for unrest, especially given that more than half the population is under the age of 25,” warns a report from USAID. 

Thaci has taken this on board. A key part of his campaign includes the €1.5bn New Mission programme that aims at creating 200,000 new jobs. However, the target is dismissed as unrealistic by opposition leaders. "We have successfully closed two important chapters for our country: independence and freedom from Serbia... Now we must lead the third battle: economic development, creation of new jobs and enhancing social well-being," Thaci said during the campaign, according to AFP

Hand in hand with high poverty levels, Kosovo is also beset with corruption and organised crime. Transparency International puts the country in 111st place out of 175 countries on its 2013 Corruption Perceptions Index - below almost all European countries. 

A survey of survey of private businesses by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) shows that corruption and other forms of crime “are a great hindrance to private enterprise and have a negative effect on private investment.” Despite initiatives from Pristina to fight graft, bribe-paying remains high. “Business representatives in Kosovo rank corruption as the biggest major obstacle to doing business, followed by high taxes and political instability,” the UNODC report says. 

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