Kosovars vote first time since independence declaration
Pristina — Kosovo citizens went to the polls Sunday for the first time since the ethnic Albanian majority declared independence from Serbia last year amid fears of a boycott by the Serb community.
The polls are seen as a test of Kosovo’s readiness to organise democratic elections on its own.
Since the end of 1998-1999 war, the territory had been run by a United Nations mission until it seceded from Serbia in February 2008 despite strong opposition by Belgrade.
More then 1.5 million people are eligible to vote in the local election for mayors and local council members in 36 municipalities, including the capital Pristina.
Polling stations opened at 7:00 am (0600 GMT) and were due to close at 7:00 pm. The first unofficial results are expected by midnight, and a runoff will be held on December 13 in municipalities where candidates fail to win more than 50 percent of the votes in the first round.
Voters will be able to cast their ballots at more than 2,000 polling stations.
Kosovo Prime Minister Hashim Thaci said the vote was "the most important since the proclamation of independence."
"We today confirm that our country has deserved to be independent and to have an European perspective," Thaci told reporters after casting his ballot in Pristina.
In his last address ahead the vote, President Fatmir Sejdiu on Friday called for a massive turnout, saying the elections were crucial.
"This Sunday should prove to the world that Kosovo is a stable country that produces peace and stability in the region," he said.
Main contenders are Sejdiu’s Democratic League of Kosovo (DLK) and Thaci’s Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK), trailed by the Alliance for the Future of Kosovo (AAK) of former prime minister Ramush Haradinaj.
But a crucial issue is how many local Serbs will boycott the vote as urged by authorities in Belgrade and the influential Serbian Orthodox Church.
About 120,000 Serbs live in Kosovo, some 40,000 in the north near the border with Serbia. They rejected the independence declaration and have kept strong links with authorities in Belgrade, receiving financial and political support from the Serbian government.
More then 60 countries, including the United States and all but five European Union members have recognised the new country.
But Serbia, backed by Russia, has rejected Kosovo’s independence, and views the territory as a renegade southern province.
However, according to the electoral commission, 22 of the 74 political parties, coalitions and individual candidates in the polls represent Serbs.
At least some of 80,000 Serbs living in enclaves in central Kosovo were expected to vote despite the boycott calls.
Kosovo police have stepped up security for election day.
The 13,000 troops in the NATO-led peacekeeping force (KFOR) are also ready to react at very short notice if needed, according to its commander, German General Markus Bentler.
The polls were set to be monitored by some 3,000 local and international observers, including an EU mission and a European Parliament delegation.