8 June 2014, 09:20

Kosovo votes in snap parliamentary elections

Kosovo votes in snap parliamentary elections

Kosovo votes Sunday in snap polls seen as a key test for Prime Minister Hashim Thaci, an ex-guerilla chief who has loomed large over his country's politics since independence six years ago, AFP reports.

There are hopes for a big turnout among the Serb minority, who are voting for the first time in a general election since Kosovo broke away from Serbia and whose participation would boost the country's EU bid.

During two terms as prime minister, Thaci set ethnic Albanian-dominated Kosovo on a path to joining the European Union, striking an EU-brokered accord in April 2013 on improving ties with its historic foe Belgrade.

For that deal to be implemented, Kosovo needs a significant turnout among its 120,000 ethnic Serbs, especially in northern Kosovo where they are the majority.

Although Belgrade 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 early elections come 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 help from minorities and a minor Albanian party.

Observers believe the main race to be between Thaci's PDK and the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK) led by former Pristina mayor Isa Mustafa.

The 46-year-old Thaci enjoyed a major popularity boost when he led Kosovo through its declaration of independence in 2008, just three months after his election.

But political analyst Nexhmedin Spahiu said it was far from certain he would win a third term.

"It is not so obvious that Thaci will chair for sure the next government as he has been weakened politically by his failure to address the main challenges in our society," Spahiu said.

Landlocked Kosovo has one of the lowest living standards in Europe, with average monthly wages of $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.

"Serbs reluctant"

Some 1.78 million voters are registered for the polls that open at 05:00 GMT and close 12 hours later. Preliminary results are expected next week.

With recent surveys predicting a turnout of Serbs in the north as low as 18 percent, Belgrade this week urged the minority to turn out in numbers.

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

Behlul Beqaj, professor of political sciences in Pristina, said he expected Belgrade's appeal to have a major impact, predicting a "huge turnout" among Kosovo Serbs.

"In the short run it might be considered a positive development for the April agreement and its further implementation," he told AFP - although he doubted Serb MPs from the north would be cooperative as members of the Kosovo parliament.

But some Serbs seem reluctant to take part.

"I will not vote," said Dragan Maksimovic, a 38-year old lawyer in northern Mitrovica.

"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 worry about our problems," Maksimovic told AFP.

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