Kosovo holds snap election with the economy in focus
PRISTINA: Kosovars vote on Sunday in a snap parliamentary election, hoping to elect a government that can improve the Balkan state's impoverished economy and make progress in joining the European Union.
About 1.9 million Kosovars, of which nearly half a million live abroad, are registered to vote in the third election since Kosovo declared independence in 2008. Polling stations open at 7 a.m. (0500 GMT) and will close at 7 p.m.
The new government will have to tackle unemployment running at 30 percent and improve relations with its neighbours, especially Serbia, a pre-condition for both countries to move forward in the European Union accession process.
The West sees the integration of the Western Balkan countries in the European Union as a way to stabilise a region still recovering from wars in the 1990s.
Early elections were called in May when the government of Prime Minister Isa Mustafa lost a no confidence vote, accused by the opposition of failing to meet its pledges to improve the lives of the youngest population in Europe.
Opinion polls put a coalition led by former prime minister Ramush Haradinaj as the frontrunner. His small Alliance for the Future of Kosovo (AAK) party signed a pre-election deal with the Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK), the biggest in the country and in power since 2007.
A victory for Haradinaj, however, would probably complicate relations with Serbia, which has issued an international warrant for his arrest for war crimes.
A coalition led Mustafa's Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK) and the leftist opposition party Vetevendosje (VV) which wants to unite all Albanians in one state are vying for second place in the vote, according to opinion polls.
In a calm election campaign, almost all the political parties promised to boost economic growth to up to 8 percent a year and to raise public sector wages by up to 40 percent.
"These economic promises will not materialise without foreign investment or building new economic capacities that will lower unemployment," analyst Imer Mushkolaj said. "Unemployment and poverty are the main problems in Kosovo's society."
Kosovo's economy has been growing steadily and is forecast to expand around four percent in 2017 but the growth is mainly down to remittances from some one million Kosovars living abroad.
The new government will also have to try to strike a border demarcation deal with Montenegro, which is the last condition for the European Union to grant visa-free travel for Kosovars.
Neighbours Albania, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia have already secured visa-free travel with EU member states.
Kosovo declared independence in 2008, nine years after NATO bombing drove out Serbian forces accused of killing and expelling Kosovo Albanian civilians during a two-year counter-insurgency. Serbia still refuses to recognise its independence.