The polls, which will determine a new prime minister, opened at 7am local time on Sunday and will close at 7pm.
The elections come after Kosovo’s Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj stepped down in July, saying he had been summoned as a suspect for questioning before a Hague-based court investigating alleged war crimes committed during the 1998-1999 war in Kosovo.
On his way out, he urged Kosovo’s president to call an early parliamentary poll.
Haradinaj was one of the top commanders of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) who fought against Serb forces during the war. He denies any wrongdoing.
In August, Kosovo’s parliament voted to dissolve, with snap elections announced for October 6.
Five main contenders are vying for the position to lead the country, which is troubled with corruption, high unemployment and deteriorating relations with neighbouring Serbia.
Kosovo has the youngest population in Europe with over half of its 1.87 million people under the age of 25.
While it has seen annual economic growth averaging four percent over the past decade, according to Reuters, the unemployment rate is currently at 27.5 percent.
More than 200,000 Kosovars have left and applied for asylum in the EU since its independence.
According to the Ljubljana-based International Institute for Middle East and Balkan Studies (IFIMES), for 19 years Kosovo’s government has been “characterised by crime, corruption and nepotism”, noting that two billion euros of EU taxpayers’ money have disappeared, or been inappropriately wasted, in Kosovo.
Kosovo ranked 93rd out of 180 countries for corruption in 2018, according to Transparency International – by comparison worse than Romania but better than the Maldives.
“Citizens demand a change in government because they’re not satisfied with the way the economy and politics and rule of law has been functioning here,” Agron Bajrami, editor in chief of Koha Ditore, Kosovo’s biggest daily newspaper, told Al Jazeera.
“These are the most important issues for the people – the kind of services they get, healthcare, education, unemployment and how to fight it and the fact that too many young people want to leave the country.”
The elections come at a crucial point as EU-brokered “normalisation” negotiations with Serbia have come to a standstill.
Since both countries aspire to join the EU, the talks were launched in 2011 to normalise relations as a condition for EU membership.
Little progress has been made since and the situation deteriorated in November 2018 when Kosovo introduced a 100 percent tax on imports of Serbian products, saying it would only cancel the tax after Serbia recognised Kosovo’s independence.
More than 100 countries including the US have recognised Kosovo, but Serbia and its allies Russia and China refuse to do so, leaving the country in a state of limbo.
The tax comes as Serbia wages a diplomatic campaign for the international community to derecognise its former southern province.
According to Serbia’s foreign ministry, 15 countries have so far withdrawn their recognition in recent years.
We have expressed our concerns in the past about corruption, bribes, arms sales and other dirty tools being applied by Serbia against #Kosovo. This will not be tolerated by us and we will defend our interests. We urge Int’ Com to react and stop this escalating behavior of Serbia.
— Behgjet Pacolli (@pacollibehgjet) August 26, 2019
Serbia has also blocked Kosovo’s path to joining organisations such as UNESCO and Interpol, seen as important steps in its bid for international recognition.
However, Bajrami told Al Jazeera that the reason why dialogue with Serbia had failed was not due to a lack of will.
“[Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and Kosovo President Hashim Thaci] and the EU mediator have guided the talks in a direction which most of the people here don’t want to see and that is the land swap, the border correction,” Bajrami said.
“That sort of discussion of course has unsettled too many people here and it has obviously unsettled parts of the region including Bosnia and North Macedonia.
“Unless this attitude or direction is changed, even with a new government it will be a problem to restart the dialogue.”
Five candidates are competing to be prime minister, including Haradinaj who is trying to hold on.
Two other former KLA guerrilla leaders turned politicians, Kadri Veseli and Fatmir Linaj, are also running, but independently this time.
They had formed a coalition in the last elections in 2017.
Disappointment with Haradinaj’s three-party coalition has boosted voters’ support for the opposition, with one of the oldest and largest parties, the centre-right Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK) and Albin Kurti’s nationalist centre-left Vetevendosje (Self-Determination), competing for first place, polls say.
Vjosa Osmani, 38, a law professor and LDK’s candidate, could become Kosovo’s first female prime minister in a government where men dominate leadership positions.
She has vowed to tackle corruption and believes Kosovars are ready to choose a woman as their leader.
“In more than 90 percent of cases it is men who are involved in corruption. A woman sees the state and how to take care of our citizens completely differently,” Osmani told Reuters in an article published on Tuesday.
Party coalitions, since no single party is expected to win a majority. The government is formed by proportional representation with 20 seats out of 120 reserved for minority parties.
“Most of the parties are saying that they would not want to have a coalition with the [establishment Democratic Party of Kosovo] PDK, the party which has been in government since independence,” Bajrami said, adding that frontrunners LDK and Self-Determination (led by Osmani and Kurti, respectively) might form a coalition.
“But elections are not very predictable and everything is possible because nobody is in a position to claim a big majority or landslide so it will be a tight race.”
However, Zijad Becirovic, director of IFIMES, told Al Jazeera that the results may not reflect the true will of Kosovars as political parties often use harassment, threats, blackmail and influence to nab votes.
“Kosovo’s problem is that it has a young, so-called “pubertal democracy”, which is being tried in a political-criminal environment,” Becirovic said.
“The situation in Kosovo isn’t the least bit simple because, with the departure of the current political establishment in these parliamentary elections, it could present a positive turning point for Kosovo.”