PRISTINA Kosovo waited for official results on Monday to confirm Prime Minister Hashim Thaci's claim of victory in the first general election since independence from Serbia, amid accusations of some vote manipulation.
Thaci's rivals did not concede, citing suspicions of irregularities in two of his stronghold towns. Supporters of both Thaci's PDK party and the rival LDK, a former coalition ally, celebrated on Sunday night with firecrackers and honking horns as they drove around town.
"Hopefully, things will get better. But it was strange to see both parties celebrate. We Albanians are impatient. And there's not much to cheer about at a time when we do not control a part of the country," said Belul, a newspaper vendor.
Kosovo, where ethnic Albanians make up 92 percent of the population of 2.2 million, declared independence from Serbia in 2008 but Serbs still dominate the north of the country.
Voting took place in a generally calm atmosphere except for minor incidents in the north. Western monitors were expected later on Monday to assess whether the elections were free and fair.
In 1999, NATO forces bombed Yugoslavia for 78 days to stop its Serb-dominated army waging ethnic cleansing in Kosovo. Their intervention ushered in nearly a decade of United Nations administration of the former Serbian province.
Now the European Union and the United States view the snap election as a test of Kosovo's democratic maturity, and a fair vote is a condition for eventual membership of the EU. The new government also has to start talks with Serbia, which has vowed never to recognize Kosovo's independence.
"Victory is ours," Thaci, without a tie and with sleeves rolled up, told supporters shortly before midnight on Sunday. "The PDK tonight has registered a historic, deep and decisive victory."
"The elections were a referendum on the European future of Kosovo," he added.
The Gani Bobi polling agency said a survey of more than 2,000 voters leaving polling stations found the PDK on 31 percent and the LDK on 25 percent. The LDK was the main minority coalition partner in the outgoing government and the party leader was Kosovo's president, a mostly ceremonial role.
With more than half of votes counted by Monday morning, the PDK had 30.6 percent, and LDK 26.2 percent, according to a group of non-governmental organizations following the counting. The NGOs expressed concern about vote manipulation in two municipalities.
Such results, if confirmed, mean Thaci would have to launch a charm offensive to win over smaller parties, a hard task since most of them have vowed publicly not to ally with his PDK.
Newspapers caught the mood as Kosovo awoke under a thin blanket of snow. "The Central Election Commission keeps silent, the parties celebrate in the streets," the Zeri daily said.
"Doubts about serious irregularities in the first general elections of Kosovo. Suspicious votes in Drenas and Skenderaj keep the elections hostage," the Koha Ditore daily said in its front page headline.
Both leading parties seek EU and NATO membership for Kosovo, continued privatization of state enterprises, and talks with former ruler Serbia, but have given few concrete details about how they will boost one of the poorest economies in Europe.
Perhaps the biggest surprise was the strength of the Self-Determination movement, which wants to unite Kosovo with ethnic kin in neighboring Albania. Led by former student leader Albin Kurti, the exit poll found them coming in third at 16 percent.
"The EU should send us doctors and economists, not policemen and judges," Kurti said. "They call us newborn, but throw us in the arena with the gladiators. Let them treat us as adults and we can manage ourselves."
(Editing by Adam Tanner and Mark Trevelyan)