While much of the international attention is focussed upon the conduct of the elections in the ethnic Serb areas in North Kosovo, there are a number of key races taking place across the country – most notably in Pristina itself.
For the first time since independence, election for Mayor of Pristina is genuinely competitive with the incumbent Isa Mustafa of the centre-right Democratic League of Kosovo locked in a very tight race with Shpend Ahmeti, the nominee of the hard line nationalist Vetevendosje (self-determination) movement. Polls suggest that former Prime Minister and current Security Forces Minister Agim Çeku, the nominee of Prime Minister Thaçi’s Democratic League (LDK) and associated allies is trailing in third place.
As is so often the case in young democracies, the city is plastered with gaudy election posters touting the policies of each of the main candidates. Across the city, messages of support for individual candidates have been spray-painted on walls by overzealous campaign workers, stickers touting political party lists cover lampposts and posters advertising last-minute rallies are plastered everywhere.
The stakes are very high. For each of the main challengers, the outcome of the election could have profound personal and political consequences.
A loss for Mustafa, who also serves as leader of his party and will be its Prime Ministerial nominee next year, would be personally devastating with less than a year to go until the general election. A victory – however narrow – over the insurgent Vetevendosje movement would seal his reputation as a steely if uninspiring campaigner and would embolden him ahead of next year’s elections.
Victory for Vetevensodje would have implications that go much further than Pristina’s city limits. The party is openly hostile towards many of the international institutions operating in Kosovo and advocates pan-Albanian nationalist ideals. To see the capital city fall into their hands would be an international embarrassment for the government – particularly in light of the recent breakthroughs that have been made in respect of relations with Serbia.
While a type of “cordon sanitaire” (see Belgium and Vlaams Belang) appears to be forming amongst Kosovo’s mainstream political parties in order to keep Vetevensodsje away from the levers of power, the Kosovan electoral system effectively mandates coalition governments meaning it may be hard to keep them out of power forever. A victory in Pristina would give the party a tremendous shot in the arm ahead of the general election in terms of increased publicity and the power of political patronage.
If Çeku finishes in third place it will be a powerful rebuke for a man who can rightly claim to be one of the “fathers” of Kosovan independence, having led the Kosovo Liberation Army to victory in the 1999 war. From an outsider’s perspective it appears that Çeku has struggled to find a niche in Kosovan politics in recent times given the strength of Hashim Thaçi’s hold on the political apparatus of the LDK and the return to frontline politics of his KLA ally Ramush Haradinaj after his acquittal from war crimes charges at The Hague. His nomination by the party for the Mayor’s race may have been an attempt to find him a more prominent political role. His likely loss will do much to advance the perception that his political career faces diminishing prospects.
I’ll be up early tomorrow to look around the city on the eve of poll, including searching for any examples of last-minute campaigning.
Until then, I’m off for some traditional Albanian food at Pi Shat, just off Mother Theresa Boulevard – an absolute must-try if you are ever in town.