PRISTINA (Reuters) - Prime Minister Hashim Thaci claimed victory in Kosovo's first general election since independence Sunday after exit polls put his PDK party well ahead.
"Victory is ours," Thaci, without a tie and with sleeves rolled up, told supporters shortly before midnight. "The elections were a referendum on the European future of Kosovo."
The Gani Bobi polling agency said a survey of more than 2,000 voters leaving voting stations put the PDK on 31 percent and the LDK, the PDK's main coalition partner in the outgoing government, on 25 percent.
With almost a third of the votes counted, the PDK had 34 percent, and the LDK 25 percent, according to a group of non-governmental organizations following the counting.
Such results mean Thaci will once again have to seek backing from smaller parties as he prepares for crucial talks with Kosovo's former master Serbia, which does not recognize Kosovo's independence, on practical aspects of coexistence.
Both leading parties seek EU and NATO membership for Kosovo and continuing privatisation of state enterprises, but both are short on concrete details of how they will boost one of the poorest economies in Europe.
In the last election in 2007, the PDK won 34.3 percent and the LDK 22.6 percent. Sunday's turnout was 47.8 percent, according to the election commission, slightly up on 2007.
The biggest surprise was the strength of the Self Determination movement, running for the first time, which wants to unite Kosovo with ethnic kin in neighboring Albania. The exit poll put it in third place on 16 percent.
It also wants to reduce international controls over Kosovo, which is still an international protectorate, and stop the privatisation process.
The LDK has said it does not want to renew its coalition with Thaci's party, which could mean a say in government for the Self Determination movement or other smaller parties.
The European Union and the United States view the snap election as a test of Kosovo's democratic maturity, and a free and fair vote is a condition for eventual membership in the EU.
"I consider the voting process a success," said Valdete Daka, the head of the Central Election Commission. "There have been technical hitches that have not hurt the process."
However, ethnic Serbs in the divided town of Mitrovica boycotted the election, showing lingering tensions from Kosovo's breakaway from Serbia.
"These elections were organized by a state that does not exist for me and this is the reason why I don't vote," said Dragan Vukosavljevic, a Serb in Mitrovica, whose northern half like much of northern Kosovo is outside Pristina's control.
But in the largely Serb village of Gracanica, close to Pristina, voters appeared to have turned out in numbers to vote for some of the nine Serb parties that were running.
Many Albanians interviewed outside polling stations said they hoped for change. With the past rallying cry of independence realised in 2008, Albanians are less reverential about their leaders today as they face the tough reality of building a nation during an era of world economic crisis.
"I would like to see more courageous leaders who keep their word," said Fatime Sheremeti, 47.
(Additional reporting Branislav Krstic in Mitrovica, writing by Adam Tanner; Editing by Kevin Liffey)