Violence mars Kosovo local polls

Ballots cast in mayoral and council races across territory, with two incidents reported in Serb area of key city.

More than 45 per cent of voters have cast ballots in local elections in Kosovo, a poll that has been marred by two violent incidents in a Serb-controlled part of a divided city, which sparked infighting among opposing Serb factions and calls for a partial repeat of polls.

The latest figures showed a 47.9 per cent voter turnout across Kosovo for Sunday’s polls.

A low voter turnout was registered in four Serb municipalities in northern Kosovo, and no results had come in  from those electoral areas.

More than 1.7 million people are eligible to vote in the polls, closely watched by the European Union, which brokered a landmark deal in April between Kosovo and Serbia to improve relations.

Voters were electing mayors and councillors, who have a four-year mandate. There are 224 mayoral candidates and 7,740 councillor candidates. More than 28,000 monitors oversaw the election.

The polls are the first in which Kosovo Serbs have taken part since Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008. Serbia does not recognise Kosovo.

Voting was stopped in Serb-controlled Kosovska Mitrovica, the northern part of a divided city known as Mitrovica on the Albanian side, after a group of masked men broke into a polling station inside a primary school, smashing windows and ballot boxes at around 5:00pm local time (16:00 GMT), according to witnesses.

Witnesses said pepper spray was deployed, but it is unclear whether it was used by the attackers or police who came to diffuse the incident. At least one person was injured in those clashes.

A short time later, police found and removed an unexploded bomb outside a technical school in the same town.

Monitors withdraw

Throughout the day, Serb hardliners stood outside polling stations in areas of northern Kosovo with majority Serb populations, screaming abuse at voters and filming them.

A spokesman for the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) confirmed to Al Jazeera that 60 members of their mission, responsible for the organisation of elections, had withdrawn from three electoral areas due to security concerns.

A large number of NATO Kosovo Force (KFOR) members were deployed to the area.

Serbian Deputy Premier Aleksandar Vucic called on the international community to allow Serbia to intervene in Kosovo and arrest those it considered suspects for the primary school incident.

Kosovo’s interior minister Bajram Rexhepi, however, said that proposal was unacceptable.

Speaking at a press conference in Pristina after polls closed at 7:00pm local time (18:00 GMT), Kosovo Electoral Commission Chief Valdete Daka said the elections were mostly successful and accused hooligans of staging the primary school incident.

Twenty-one people were arrested across Kosovo for interfering with the election process, she said.

A decision would be made on the ballots from the primary school polling station once they reached the electoral commission, the election commissioner said, adding that no other polling places had been interfered with.

Serbs divided

About 120,000 Serbs live in Kosovo, but 40,000 living north of the River Ibar were divided over whether to vote in the elections.

A larger number of Serbs live south of the River Ibar in several enclaves surrounded by majority Albanian towns. The Serb enclaves have now mostly been organised into councils, all of which would enter a new Association of Serb Councils after the polls.

Hardline nationalist Serbs called for a boycott, while Belgrade strongly backed the polls.

Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic, Prime Minister Ivica Dacic and Vucic issued a joint appeal to the voters to cast their ballots. Serbia backed the Civil Initiative Srpska, one of 33 Serb electoral lists among a total of 103 lists in the Kosovo polls.

The mayoral candidate for Kosovska Mitrovica, Krstimir Pantic, who was physically attacked on the eve of the election, called for the polls in northern Kosovo to be declared void.

He said there were indications Marko Jaksic, a member of the Serbian Parliament from the Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS) was behind the incident. DSS actively campaigned against Serbs voting in the Kosovo polls.

Jaksic told Al Jazeera this theory was ” a great political stupidity”, adding he saw plain-clothed Serbian police telling hooligans they had their support ahead of the primary school incident.

Kosovo Prime Minister Hashim Thaci said in Pristina the polls were “the first free elections organised in the whole territory of Kosovo and they are historic for our new state. These elections are a European test for us”.

‘Historically unsuccessful’

Political analyst Behlul Beqaj told Al Jazeera in Pristina the elections were in no way historic. They could only be described as “historically unsuccessful”, he said.

Ilir Deda, executive director of the Kosovar Institute for Policy Research and Development, told Al Jazeera in Pristina the elections should be declared void in all four municipalities in the north of Kosovo, given the incidents and the withdrawal of OSCE members. He said the legal basis for holding free and fair elections was not fulfilled.

Nenad Djurdjevic, director of the Belgrade-based Forum for Ethnic Relations, said it was clear a fair and democratic process did not take place, but that the Electoral Commission had a final say whether polls would be repeated in some municipalities.

He added that if a new partial poll was ordered, it was questionable whether citizens would be motivated to turn out given the violence on Sunday.

Source : Al Jazeera

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