PRISTINA The ruling party of ex-guerrilla leader Hashim Thaci has won most votes in Kosovo's parliamentary election but is left seeking partners to help fulfill buoyant promises it made to a frustrated electorate.
With most votes from Sunday's poll officially counted, Thaci's Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK) came out on top with 31 percent, ahead of its arch-rival, the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK), on 26 percent.
The PDK claimed victory on Sunday night, but the result will not give Thaci enough seats in parliament to form his third successive government alone.
Turnout of just 43 percent reflected a deep unease among Kosovo's 1.8 million people, most of whom are ethnic Albanian, over the direction their young country has taken since seceding from Serbia in 2008.
Thaci's options are to make a grand coalition with the LDK or turn to the smaller Alliance for the Future of Kosovo and to Kosovo's ethnic Serb minority.
"Which leader will embrace Hashim Thaci?" Kosovo's gazetaexpress.com website said in its leading news article, carrying photos of the opposition leaders.
After hiking public sector wages, pensions and welfare by 25 percent two months before the vote, Thaci has promised to do the same every year for the next four of his new term and to create 200,000 jobs.
Analysts said both pledges might prove a tall order in one of Europe' poorest countries, where a third of the workforce is unemployed and corruption is rife.
WAR CRIMES PROBE
"They (the PDK) have raised the stakes too high this time, talking about millions, billions of euros and hundreds of thousands of jobs. It will be very difficult," said Agron Bajrami, editor-in-chief of the biggest newspaper, Koha Ditore.
"It's a lot of money that's not there. The pressure will start to build after September, once the summer holidays pass," Bajrami said.
Another challenge for the new government will be immediate pressure from the West to respect the findings of a war crimes investigation that threatens to ensnare Thaci's former comrades-in-arms.
A report by a special European Union task force is expected within weeks on allegations that Kosovo's guerrilla army harvested organs from Serb prisoners of war and sold them on the black market during the 1998-99 conflict.
A new court will be created but most of its work will be done outside Kosovo because of witness intimidation and a graft-ridden legal system in the country.
The United States embassy in Pristina said it was looking forward to cooperating with the new government "on key issues that will help advance Kosovo's Euro-Atlantic aspirations".
In 1999, NATO launched air strikes against Serbia to halt the killings and mass expulsion of Kosovo Albanians by Serbian forces waging a counter-insurgency in Kosovo.
Today Kosovo is recognized by more than 100 countries but not Serbia and its big-power backer Russia, which is blocking the young state's accession to the United Nations.
(Writing by Fatos Bytyci; Editing by Zoran Radosavljevic and Andrew Roche)