By Fatos Bytyci and Branislav Krstic
PRISTINA (Reuters) – Kosovo went to the polls on Sunday for the first time since declaring independence from Serbia last year, with parties pledging to tackle unemployment, corruption, poor infrastructure and weak foreign investment.
Facing a key democratic test, Kosovo’s leaders have urged citizens to vote peacefully after violent incidents marred the last week of campaigning, including the stoning of the prime minister’s car and an attack on a mayoral candidate.
Few expect the winners of the local elections to change the 40 percent unemployment rate and create jobs for 30,000 young people who enter the job market every year. Many of them continue to leave the country to find work abroad.
“We need water, better roads and elevators in our apartments, which are the municipality’s job,” said Hasim Canolli, 60, after voting in the capital Pristina. “The independence issue is over, and people need jobs now.”
Turnout among Kosovo’s small Serb minority was minimal after Serbian leaders in Belgrade warned voters not to “legitimise Kosovo’s independence.”
“When my president, my government and my (Orthodox) Church in Belgrade told me not to vote, of course I will not vote,” said Snezana Markovic in the Serb stronghold of Mitrovica in northern Kosovo.
But some voters from the Serb minority in southern parts of the country were voting for their new municipalities, as foreseen in the Kosovo independence plan drafted by former Finnish president Martti Ahtisaari.
“Today we are showing that our country and its citizens have deserved independence, democracy and the European Union perspective,” said Kosovo’s prime minister, Hashim Thaci.
The dominant groupings are Thaci’s Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK) and President Fatmir Sejdiu’s Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK), which are coalition partners in the government.
Around 1.5 million people are eligible to elect mayors and local councils in 36 municipalities. Clear winners will emerge only after second-round mayoral run-offs in a month’s time.
Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008, nine years after NATO bombing drove out Serb forces to stop the killing of ethnic Albanians in a two-year counter-insurgency war.
More than 60 countries, mainly western, have recognized Kosovo’s independence, but not Serbia, its former ruler, or Russia.
After the war ended in 1999, elections in Kosovo were run by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). These are the first polls to be organized by local authorities.