Hashim Thaci heads to The Hague to face war crimes charges along with three other Kosovar officials.
Kosovars are going to the polls in an early election that could see a new generation of politicians take the lead after tapping into widespread frustration and fatigue with the political establishment.
Sunday’s general election comes after a year in which the coronavirus pandemic has deepened social and economic crises in the former Serbian province, which declared independence 13 years ago.
Already one of Europe’s poorest economies, Kosovo is now struggling through a pandemic-triggered downturn, with vaccinations yet to start for the population of 1.8 million.
Vetevendosje (Self-determination) – an anti-establishment protest movement-turned-political party – looks set to benefit from a growing hunger for change.
Polls place it in a comfortable first place, though potentially short of an absolute majority.
The party has been campaigning on an anti-corruption platform, accusing traditional elites of squandering Kosovo’s first years of independence with corruption and mismanagement, and pledging to create jobs and raise salaries.
For most of the past decade, Kosovo has been run by the former rebel commanders who led the 1990s rebellion of ethnic Albanian fighters against Serb forces.
However, their camp is now missing its top leaders after a court in The Hague detained ex-President Hashim Thaci and others in November on charges of war crimes dating back to the conflict.
This seems to have helped open a path for Vetevendosje, whose calls for change may even win over some who do not align with the movement’s hardliner past, including sometimes violent protests, anti-West rhetoric and incidents in which members of Parliament let off tear gas in Parliament.
‘We are coming, they are leaving’
Polls opened under snowy skies and freezing temperatures at 06:00 GMT, and will close 12 hours later with initial results expected in the late evening.
“I am calling all citizens to respect all rules (in regard) to the pandemic, while they are exercising their right to vote,” Election Commission Chairwoman Valdete Daka told reporters after casting her ballot in the capital, Pristina.
Vetevendosje, led by 45-year-old former political prisoner Albin Kurti, has finished first in the last two parliamentary polls.
However, in both cases, it was eventually outmanoeuvred by other parties who united to form majority coalitions.
After the 2019 election, Kurti was prime minister for a brief 50 days before his coalition crumbled.
This time he is confident he can translate his victory into a lasting government.
“We are coming, they are leaving,” he told supporters ahead of the poll.
Rivals have been attacking Kurti – who enjoys great devotion among fans – for preparing “a dictatorship” that could threaten Kosovo’s important alliance with the United States.
The latest polls put the Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK) – the party of former rebels – in second place with approximately 20 percent of the vote, followed by the incumbent Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK).
This time Kurti is also boosted by an alliance with acting President Vjosa Osmani, who recently joined his side after leaving the LDK.
Half of youth jobless
Kurti is particularly popular among young people who feel betrayed by their current leadership.
Youth unemployment tops 50 percent in Kosovo, forcing many to go abroad in a growing “brain drain” crisis.
While Kurti himself cannot run as a member of Parliament – he is banned due to a 2018 court conviction for letting off tear gas in Parliament – his party could still appoint him as their prime minister.
There are also 20 seats reserved for ethnic minorities in the 120-member assembly, half for the Serb community.
During this campaign, there has been little talk about the stalling negotiations to resolve Kosovo’s “frozen conflict” with Serbia, an issue Kurti is expected to take a hardline stance on.
Belgrade still refuses to recognise Kosovo’s statehood, a source of serious tension in the region and an obstacle for either side to someday join the European Union.