PRISTINA, Kosovo (AP) – Voters in Kosovo were casting their ballots Sunday in an early general election for the new 120-seat parliament.
At stake are thorny issues including a border demarcation deal with Montenegro that brought down the previous government, and the approval of another deal with Serbia giving more rights to the ethnic Serb minority.
The continuation of fraught talks with Belgrade – which denies Kosovo’s existence as a state – is also a key concern.
Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008. The new state has been recognized by 114 countries, including the United States and most of the EU members, but not by Belgrade.
Nineteen political parties, five coalitions and two citizens’ initiatives, all promising to secure economic growth and ease Kosovars’ travel restrictions to the European Union, have nominated candidates.
Among the contenders is a coalition of three major parties run by former rebel commanders. They have proposed Ramush Haradinaj, still regarded by Serbia as a war criminal, as prime minister.
Others include Prime Minister Isa Mustafa’s party, which nominates former finance Minister Avdullah Hoti for leadership, and the Self-Determination Movement, the biggest opposition party to shun pre-election coalitions, which put forward their founder Albin Kurti as a candidate for prime minister.
Ethnic Serbs and other minorities have 20 out of 120 seats in the parliament.
Valdete Daka, head of the Central Election Commission that manages the electoral process, called on Kosovars to vote “to show to the world we are part of democracy and know how to hold elections properly” after casting her ballot at a polling station in the capital, Pristina.
“I invite all citizens, regardless of their political or ethnic affiliation, to take part in the election and vote for their future,” said President Hashim Thaci.
Local and international observers are monitoring the vote.
“My expectations are for free fair election in Kosovo,” said U.S. Ambassador Greg Delawie at a polling station.
Kosovo is the only western Balkan country whose citizens need visas to enter the EU’s Schengen zone. To join, Brussels insists Kosovo’s parliament must first approve a border demarcation deal signed with Montenegro in 2015.
Opposition parties say that deal meant a loss of territory, over 8,000 hectares (20,000 acres), or less than 1 percent of Kosovo’s land. The former Cabinet, international experts and the country’s Western backers dispute that claim.
The Self-Determination Movement and others also oppose another deal signed in 2015 that gave more rights to the ethnic Serb minority.
A further issue is the prospect of former ethnic Albanian senior rebel commanders facing prosecution in the newly established war crimes court. The court in The Hague is expected to shortly issue indictments for crimes committed against civilians during and after the 1998-1999 war with Serbia.
Preliminary results are expected around an hour after the voting ends at 7 p.m. (1700 GMT), according to Daka.
Semini reported from Tirana, Albania.