Clare Nuttall in Bucharest -
Kosovan Prime Minister Hashim Thaci has claimed victory in the country’s June 8 parliamentary election, as his Democratic Party of Kosovo (DPK) enjoyed a narrow lead in the polls despite a low turnout.
Kosovo’s Central Election Commission shows that with votes from 94.23% of polling stations already counted, the DPK has 31.21% of votes with its main rival the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK) on 26.13%.
The DPK’s coalition partner in the previous government, the Alliance for the Future of Kosovo is in fourth place on 9.65%, slightly behind the Self Determination Party, with 13.73%
"Tonight, Kosovo has won. From tomorrow we will start work on our new mission. We will tell the world that Kosovo's independence was just the beginning, not the end,” Thaci told supporters in Pristina, Reuters reported, referring to the tiny state's self-declared independence from Serbia in 2008.
While Thaci has been returned to power, election day saw a low turnout of just 43%, down from 48% in 2010.
The head of the Central Election Commission Valdete Daka, also reported a shortage of ballot papers across the country. Expecting a low turnout, “the ballot papers were printed in smaller numbers, simply for economic reasons,” Daka told journalists, according to Albania’s Albeu news site.
As Thaci starts his new term in office, his first major challenge is likely to be the establishment of a tribunal to investigate allegations of organ harvesting from Serb prisoners-of-war during the war it fought in 1998-99 with Serbia, of which it used to be a province prior to independence. 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. Publication of a report on the issue by an EU-appointed task force is expected in the near future, after speculation is was delayed to avoid disrupting the election.
At home, Thaci is also expected to have to tackle the tiny republic’s economic woes. The domestic political landscape has seen some fundamental changes during Thaci’s six years in power. 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.
Kosovo’s economic difficulties are weighing on voters' minds. 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 to create 200,000 new jobs - a target that has been dismissed as unrealistic by opposition leaders. He also announced a public sector pay hike shortly before the election.
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 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.
A report from the Council of Europe, which sent an observer mission to Kosovo, on the conduct of the elections is expected later on June 9. However, the peaceful vote bodes well for Kosovo’s ambitions for greater integration with the EU.
The most 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.
However, 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. However, according to InSerbia News, turnout of only 18% was expected among the Kosovo Serbs, with most still reluctant to take part in the election.
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.
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