Polls have closed in Kosovo, where voters turned out for snap parliamentary elections. The outcome remains uncertain as incumbent Prime Minister Hashim Thaci faces a tough fight from the opposition.
Polling stations closed across Kosovo at 7 p.m. local time (1700 UTC ). The electoral commission reported low voter turnout, saying that little more than 25 percent had cast ballots by 4 p.m.
Later reports estimated that only roughly 43 percent of the country's eligible voters had cast their ballots on Sunday.
Early exit polls showed the ruling Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK) with 33 percent, giving it a narrow lead, according to Reuters news agency. It also reported that the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK) trailed behind with 30 percent.
By late Sunday, the PDK - led by incumbent Prime Minister Hashim Thaci - said the preliminary count pointed to a clear win.
"Our party is the biggest winner of the national election," PDK deputy leader Kadri Veseli told reporters.
Final results have not yet been released.
Low Serb turnout
The snap elections are seen as a key step for Pristina to fulfill the terms of an EU-brokered deal, which aims to improve ties between Kosovo's Albanian majority and Serb minority populations. However, interest appeared low among ethnic Serbs in the country's north, where they were voting for the first time since Kosovo broke away from Serbia.
Although the Serb minority community had originally vowed to boycott the polls, they relented under pressure from Belgrade and agreed to participate. Kosovo's 120,000 Serbs have largely refused to recognize Pristina's 2008 declaration of independence from Serbia.
The snap elections were called in May after minority Serb lawmakers blocked a vote on establishing a national army.
Prime Minister Hashim Thaci has sought to woo voters with a program called the "New Mission," promising 1.5 billion euros in investment and 200,000 new jobs for a country with 35 percent unemployment and rampant poverty.
"We have successfully closed two important chapters for our country: independence and freedom," Thaci said. He oversaw Kosovo's disputed declaration of independence from Serbia in 2008.
"Now we must lead the third battle: economic development, creation of new jobs and enhancing social well-being," he continued.
But the political opposition and independent analysts have called Thaci's promises outrageous.
"Kosovo would need to have at least 20 percent annual growth, seven times more than it registered during [Thaci's] previous mandates," economic analyst Lumir Abdixhiku told the AFP news agency.
Members of Thaci's Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK) have been accused of having connections to organized crime and enriching themselves. According to Transparency International, Kosovo ranked 111th in its 2013 corruption index.
A former guerrilla, Thaci ran the political wing of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) during the 1998-1999 war with Serbia.
A special EU task force is currently investigating allegations that the KLA harvested and trafficked organs from Serb prisoners during the war. A 2011 report by the Council of Europe implicated Thaci and four other high-ranking members of the PDK.
Close race predicted
With no reliable pre-election polling, it's unclear who will come out on top on Sunday in the country of 1.8 million people. But some observers believe it will be the closest race in years.
"The result of this election is the most uncertain of any election so far in Kosovo," political analyst Astrit Gashi told the Reuters news agency.
Thaci's PDK is facing off against the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK), the Self-Determination Movement, and the Alliance for the Future of Kosovo.
kms/dr (AFP, dpa)