Kosovo goes to polls in vote that pits new generation against old guard
Kosovo votes Sunday in an early election that could see a younger generation of politicians take the lead after tapping into widespread frustration and fatigue with the political establishment.
The general election comes after a year in which the coronavirus pandemic has deepened social and economic crises in the former Serbian province, which declared independence 13 years ago.
Already one of Europe's poorest economies, Kosovo is now struggling through a virus-triggered downturn, with vaccination yet to start for the population of 1.8 million.
Vetevendosje (Self-determination) -- an anti-establishment protest movement turned political party -- looks set to benefit from a growing hunger for change.
Polls place it in a comfortable first place, though potentially short of an absolute majority.
The party has been campaigning on an anti-corruption platform, accusing traditional elites of squandering Kosovo's first years of independence with graft and mismanagement.
Since splitting off from Serbia in 2008, Kosovo has mostly been run by the former rebel commanders who led the 1990s independence war.
But their camp is now missing its leaders after a court in The Hague detained ex-president Hashim Thaci and others in November on charges of war crimes dating back to the conflict.
Analysts say this has helped enlarge the pool from which Vetevendosje can boost support, even among those who do not align with the movement's radical past, including sometimes violent protests, anti-West rhetoric and incidents in which MPs unleashed tear gas in parliament.
"For many, Vetevendosje is being seen as the last resort which will either make or break the country," Donika Emini, executive director of CiviKos Platform, a umbrella group for NGOs, told AFP.
'Time for cleaning'
Sabri Kadriu, a professor of economics in Pristina, is among voters hoping for a major break from the past.
"The time has come for proper cleaning," he told AFP of the corruption.
Vetevendosje, led by 45-year-old Albin Kurti, has finished first in the last two parliamentary polls.
But in both cases it was eventually outmanoeuvred by other parties who united to form majority coalitions.
This time Kurti is confident he can translate his victory into a lasting government.
"We are coming, they are leaving," he told supporters ahead of the poll.
Rivals have been attacking Kurti -- who enjoys great devotion among fans -- of preparing "a dictatorship" that could threaten Kosovo's important alliance with the US.
They are also pledging to create jobs and raise salaries.
But the latest polls suggest their promises are ringing hollow for many, with the Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK) -- the party of ex-rebels -- in second place with around 20 percent of the vote, followed by the outgoing Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK).
This time Kurti is also boosted by an alliance with acting President Vjosa Osmani, who recently joined their side after leaving the LDK.
"I think it is about time that Kosovo is led by not only a new generation of politicians in terms of age but especially in terms of mind-set," the 38-year-old told AFP.
Kurti, long a thorn in the establishment's side, is particularly popular among young people who feel betrayed by their current leadership.
Unemployment for youth tops 50 percent in Kosovo, forcing many to go abroad for work in a growing "brain drain" crisis.
"I don't have a hope that I will be employed here after I graduate university, or even after I get my masters degree, that is what concerns me," said Hanmije Lohaj, a 17-year-old at a Vetevendosje rally.
While Kurti himself cannot run as an MP -- he is banned due to a court conviction for unleashing tear gas in parliament -- his party could still appoint him as their Prime Minister.
There are also 20 seats reserved for ethnic minorities in the 120-member assembly, half for the Serb community.
With campaigning focused on social and economic issues at home, there has been little talk about the stalling negotiations to resolve lingering tensions with Serbia.
But whoever wins will face heavy pressure from the west to reboot talks with Belgrade, which still refuses to recognise Kosovo's statehood.
Polls will open at 0600GMT and close at 1800GMT, with initial results expected later in the evening.
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