PRISTINA (Reuters) – An anti-establishment party was expected to take the lead in parliamentary elections in Kosovo on Sunday, complicating Western efforts to broker an end to a territorial dispute with Serbia that has hobbled its 13 years of independence.
The Vetevendosje party’s growing popularity has shifted the political balance in the small Balkan state, which declared independence from Serbia nine years after NATO bombing ended a crackdown on separatists by then-Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic.
Opinion polls predict it will win between 45 and 55 percent of the vote among ethnic Albanians, who make up 90 percent of the 1.9 million population. That would be nearly double its score in 2019 although it may still need a partner to govern.
Serbia, backed by Russia, does not recognise Kosovo’s independence, citing the need to protect the rights of its Serb minority. Numerous EU and U.S. negotiators have failed to secure a compromise to allow it to join international organisations such as the United Nations and NATO.
Vetevendosje argues there can be no compromise with Serbia and has campaigned against widespread graft in Kosovo during two decades of rule by parties led by former separatist fighters.
A Facebook campaign has won it support among young people, including the many who have moved abroad to try to find work. One in three people are unemployed in what is the poorest country in the Western Balkans.
Faton Byqmeti, 27, flew in from France to cast his ballot.
“It would be good to get rid of the thieves,” he told Reuters. “We hope the Vetevendosje people will do something, that’s why we came from abroad to vote.”
Vetevendosje may have to join forces with either the now-ruling Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK), opposition Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK) or Alliance for the Future of Kosovo (AAK), but analysts foresaw a change in the political elite.
“Those ruling Kosovo for the past 20 years will be thrown out of political life in Kosovo and we will see new politicians,” said Nexhmedin Spahiu, a 55-year-old professor from the northern town of Mitrovica, home to many ethnic Serbs.
Naim Rashiti an analyst with the Balkans Policy Research Group said Vetevendosje leader Albin Kurti would face the same dilemmas as his predecessors over how to fortify Kosovo’s independence.
Former Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj, whose AAK party could emerge as a king-maker, says Kosovo should not be held hostage to a deal with Serbia.
“We might as well look for other options and another option would be referendum and becoming a union with Albania,” he told Reuters.
(Additional reporting by Fatos Bytyci; editing by Philippa Fletcher)
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