November 15, 2009 / 1:34 PM / 10 years ago

Kosovo's statehood faces first test at local polls

PRISTINA (Reuters) - Kosovo held its first elections on Sunday since declaring independence from Serbia last year, with unemployment, corruption, poor infrastructure and low investment the biggest issues for voters.

A Kosovar Albanian votes at a polling station in the Kosovo town of Lipljane November 15, 2009. Sunday's local elections are the first elections since the country declared independence in 2008 and they are seen as a key test for Kosovo's fragile democracy. REUTERS/Hazir Reka

The local polls are seen as a key test for Kosovo which wants to establish itself as a fully functioning democracy and gain acceptance from more countries than the 63 that have so far recognized it as an independent state.

“Today we are showing that our country and its citizens have deserved independence, democracy and the European Union perspective,” said Kosovo’s prime minister, Hashim Thaci.

Analysts say the low turnout, 45 percent, reflects the disappointment many Kosovars feel in their leaders for failing to improve the economy of one of Europe’s poorest countries.

“The faith is lost in Kosovo because of high corruption among the political parties,” Halil Matoshi, a political analyst said. “People that vote today are mainly party militants.”

The turnout among Kosovo’s Serbian minority was minimal.

The Election Commission said there were no major irregularities and polling stations closed at 1800 GMT.

Few expect the winners of the local elections to change the 40 percent unemployment rate and create jobs for the 30,000 young people who enter the job market every year. Many of them continue to leave the country to find work abroad.

“We need water, better roads, and elevators in our apartments, which are the municipality’s job,” said Hasim Canolli, 60, after voting in the capital Pristina. “The independence issue is over, and people need jobs now.”

Serbian leaders in Belgrade warned their ethnic kin in Kosovo not to “legitimise Kosovo’s independence.”

“When my president, my government and my Church in Belgrade told me not to vote, of course I will not vote,” said Snezana Markovic in the Serb stronghold of Mitrovica in northern Kosovo.

But some voters from the Serb minority in southern parts of the country voted for their new municipalities as foreseen in the Kosovo independence plan drafted by former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari, but the turnout was also low.

Around 1.5 million people were eligible to elect mayors and local councils in 36 municipalities. Clear winners will emerge only after second-round mayoral run-offs in a month’s time.

Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008, nine years after NATO bombs drove out Serb forces to stop the killing of ethnic Albanians in a two-year counter-insurgency war.

Mostly Western countries have recognized Kosovo’s independence, but not Serbia, its former ruler, nor Russia.

After the war ended in 1999, elections in Kosovo were run by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). These are the first polls to be organized by local authorities.

Editing by Jon Hemming

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