Voters in Kosovo went to the polls today to vote in the second round of the country’s local elections. While it will be a number of days until the full political fallout from the elections is clear, it’s already possible to make some key observations about the elections.
Overall, the counting was speedy and transparent. The results from each of the municipalities where run-offs were necessarily were counted extremely quickly, with reports on the progress of the counts updated online in “real time”. It is testament to the level of interest that these elections have sparked both inside and outside of Kosovo that, at times, the download speed of the Central Electoral Commission’s website was reduced to a snail’s pace as people logged on to check the results in their own municipalities.
Across the country, turnout was a fairly solid 40.3%, which puts Kosovo roughly in-line with many European Union countries when it comes to participation in local elections.
The elections were a stunning rebuke for the Kosovan political classes – regardless of their political party. Powerful incumbents have been unseated in the capital city of Pristina and key cities of Peja/Pec and Ferizaj/Urosevac. Initial calculations from Kosovo’s Deputy Foreign Minister Petrit Selimi indicate that roughly two thirds of municipalities have opted to back opposition candidates over incumbents.
The result in Pristina will be analysed more than any other given the political party Ahmeti represents. I would caution against over-analysing the result and seeing it as a popular endorsement of Vetevendosje’s rather controversial manifesto but rather as a personal victory for Shpend Ahmeti, whose profile as a Harvard University Kennedy School of Government-educated economics professor saw him make big inroads amongst middle-class voters in the city. Indeed, the professional backgrounds of both Ahmeti and the man he beat Isa Mustafa are almost identical, other than Ahmeti is not devoid of charisma.
Rather than Ahmeti’s victory serving as a boon for the party, it could perversely spell trouble for the broader Vetevendosje movement. While the party is officially led by the tup-thumping MP Albin Kurti, Ahmeti’s victory seals his position as the most powerful figure inside the party. Kurti is unlikely to be willing to hand over control of the movement to Ahmeti and his supporters, regardless of this new reality. As such, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Ahmeti take advantage of Kosovo’s famously fluid party system and instead launch a new, broad-based party that fits his persona better than the rather shrill Vetevendosje movement.
Isa Mustafa’s loss will likely mark the end of his political career. Aside from being Mayor of Pristina, he also seved as the leader of the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK) and would have been expected to be the party’s Prime Ministerial nominee next year. After being defeated in the LDK’s former Pristina heartland, this will now impossible and his resignation as party leader ought to be forthcoming in the coming hours.
In another significant results, Ali Berisha from Ramush Haradinaj’s Alliance for the Future of Kosovo was unseated by a 56% to 44% margin in their heartland area of Peja. These elections were the first to take place since Haradinaj’s acquittal from war crimes charges and, as such, it was important for him and his party to make a big splash nationally in order to “relaunch” his career. He and his party failed in that respect.
It is also interesting to note that, despite his personal unpopularity amongst the Kosovan public, former President Behgjet Pacolli’s New Kosovo Alliance has performed strongly with victory for the articulate former Deputy Prime Minister Mimoza Kusari-Lila in Gjakove and Agim Bahtiri in South Mitrovica – two key population centres.
Throughout the campaign, I have been surprised by the lack of attention that has been paid to the race in the municipality of Novo Brdo / Novoberde. At the time of the last OSCE census, it was found that the municipality was home to 3,524 Albanians, 3,122 Serbs and only a small handful of other ethnicities – making it one of the very few truly multi-ethnic communities in Kosovo.
Unsurprisingly given the mixed population, the first and second placed candidates who progressed to the run-off were Serbian and Albanian whereas in all other areas with large Serb populations, the run-off was between two Serb nominees. As such, the contest was a unique study of the effectiveness of the “get out the vote” operations of the Serb and Albanian communities. The turnout battle was well and truly won by the Serb community, whose nominee Svetislav Ivanvoic was elected with 54% of the vote over Albanian Bajrush Ymeri.
At the time of the last election, the only Serbian-dominated communities that turned out in large numbers were the enclaves of Gracancica and Strpce – largely in order to ensure that the elections were not won by candidates from the tiny local Albanian community in the area on, say, a 100 vote turnout. It seems that this message got through in Novo Brdo/Novoberde this time, with Serbs demonstrating a remarkably high level of civic engagement in order to ensure a member of their community was able to win control of the Town Hall. Going forward, this could well become a regular example of the way the Serb community organises itself inside the Kosovan state.
Despite the psephological significance of the result in Novo Brdo/Novoberde, the real race of significance for the Serbian community was in the municipality of North Mitrovica. In a relatively close race, the election was won by the incumbent Mayor Krstimir Pantic who defeated the former head of the Serbian ‘Coalition for Return’ Oliver Ivanovic by a 55% to 44% margin.
In my experience – which in no way relates to the comparative abilities of either man to exercise the core mayoral functions of keeping the streets clean and schools running efficiently – Ivanovic has always been the savvier operator in dealing with and charming the international community while Pantic has been a more “under the radar” operator.
As a fairly regular visitor to North Kosovo (and North Mitrovica in particular), it will be fascinating to watch how Pantic uses the increased funding and political access that will be provided to the city by Pristina, Belgrade and international organisations now that the local elections have been successfully concluded. From an economic development point of view, the number one priority must be working with Pristina to devise a workable plan to re-open the Trepca mining complex – a facility that could bring vast economic benefits to the entire region.
There are many holes that can be picked in the way in which the elections were conducted in both ethnic Serbian and Albanian areas. Voter rolls were too often out of date, political parties focussed too much on personalities rather than policies and turnout remained a big problem in the Serb community. It’s difficult, however, to argue that they weren’t generally a success. Ethnic minorities in Kosovo are genuinely now better represented than in the past, while losses for incumbents suggest a strengthening of Kosovan willingness to challenge their leaders and hold them to account. That’s progress.