Tim Friend reports from Pristina on preparations for the parliamentary poll.
Political parties in Kosovo have finished campaigning as the territory prepares for its first parliamentary elections since its declaration of independence from Serbia in 2008, amid fears of a partition along ethnic lines.
Sunday’s snap election comes after the government of Hashim Thaci, the prime minister, failed a vote of no confidence on November 2.
Around 1.6 million people are eligible to vote for the 120-seat parliament, an election official said. Twenty-nine political parties, coalitions and citizens’ initiatives are in the race.
Ten of the parliamentary seats are reserved for minority Serbs, some of whom are running in the poll.
However, most Serbs in Kosovo are expected to boycott the elections, heeding calls from Serbia’s leaders, who still consider Kosovo part of their country.
Thaci has called upon minority Serbs to break with tradition and vote on Sunday, urging them to build a common future for European Kosovo.
“I believe Kosovo citizens, institutions and people of Kosovo they will achieve high level standard of free and democratic elections,” he said.
The main contenders in the election are the two largest political parties, Thaci’s Democratic Party of Kosovo and its former junior coalition partner, Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK).
Polls favour Thaci’s party to win the ballot but without a clear majority, indicating that he will likely be forced to seek a coalition partner.
His main rival, the LDK, enters the election bruised by a power struggle, while the Alliance for the Future of Kosovo is weakened because its leader, former fighter Ramush Haradinaj, is on retrial on war crime charges by a UN tribunal.
The election campaign has seen several newcomers, including Albin Kurti, a former student activist, whose Self-Determination movement advocates Kosovo’s unification with Albania and rejects talks with Serbia.
Kurti said he believed that the people had held “high expectations” about the declaration of independence but that only politicians had benefited.
“People see that the main beneficiaries of this formal independence have been politicians not the citizens,” he said.
The vote will be held amid suggestions that Kosovo’s northern region, mainly inhabited by Serbs, is heading towards a partition.
Christopher Dell, the US ambassador to Kosovo, has warned that such a development could spark renewed ethnic violence across the region, according to a series of secret diplomatic cables, released by the WikiLeaks website on Thursday.
The rise in tensions could also cast doubts over upcoming EU-brokered talks between Kosovo and Serbia.
Leading up to the weekend poll, assailants on Wednesday ambushed and killed a Bosniak leader loyal to Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian-dominated institutions involved in organising the elections in the northern town of Mitrovica.
The town has been divided between ethnic Albanians and Serbs since the end of the 1999 war.
For majority ethnic Albanians, the ballot is held amid hopes that it will inch the struggling territory closer to eventual membership of the European Union, even as the 27-member bloc shows a weakened resolve to take in new members dogged by the global financial crisis.
Five members of the EU have refused to recognise Kosovo as an independent state.
With an unemployment rate at 40 per cent, in a territory with the youngest population in Europe and a political leadership tainted by EU police investigations for corruption, many observers believe the chances of moving closer to the EU are slim.
So far, around 70 countries have recognised Kosovo as an independent state, including the US and Japan.