An exit poll gives Prime Minister Hashim Thaci's Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK) a solid lead in Sunday's snap elections. However, his closest rival, Pristina Mayor Isa Mustafa, has not yet conceded defeat.
Some 29 parties and groups were contesting 120 seats
Prime Minister Hashim Thaci's Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK) has claimed victory in Sunday's election, with an exit poll showing his party well ahead.
Official results won't be released until Monday afternoon, but according to the poll - conducted by the Gani Bobi agency and based on interviews with 2,200 voters - the PDK received at least 31 percent of votes cast, ahead of Pristina Mayor Isa Mustafa's Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK), in second with 25 percent.
"Victory is ours," Thaci told supporters shortly before midnight. "The elections were a referendum on the European future of Kosovo."
Citing its own exit poll based on a count of more than 60 percent of ballots cast, the LDK has insisted it is ahead in the vote.
"[The exit poll] is not a final result. The LDK is still leading at the Kosovo level," party spokesman Arben Gashi said.
Sunday's election was the first since Kosovo declared independence from Serbia nearly three years ago. Some 1.6 million voters were eligible to cast their ballots to elect 120 members of parliament.
Campaign to end corruption
Mustafa promised to sweep away corruption
Mustafa had campaigned on an anti-corruption ticket, hoping to capitalize on growing disillusionment with the country's poor economic standing.
"We will give you a government ... which will root out corruption and boost the image and name of Kosovo," said Mustafa in his final rally.
A recent survey showed 73 percent of the population thought corruption had worsened under Thaci, who has led the country since it declared independence in February 2008. With unemployment at nearly 50 percent, polls prior to Sunday's vote showed Thaci's PDK party at 30 percent - only 2 percent ahead of the LDK.
Thaci, a former guerrilla leader, addressed his final rally on Friday with a pledge to dramatically increase the salaries of civil servants.
"The decision to increase salaries is not an electoral promise. It is a reality," he told cheering supporters.
Elections were called when the LDK pulled out of the coalition government due to a constitutional dispute concerning its former leader Fatmir Sejdiu, also Kosovo's president until he stepped down in September.
A majority think corruption has worsened under Thaci
From guerrillas to politicians
The PDK, which emerged from ethnic Albanian guerrilla units that fought Serbian forces in the late 1990s, has claimed that it is best placed to make Kosovo a member of the European Union as quickly as possible.
The same claim is made by the LDK, which was founded by the late "father of the nation," Ibrahim Rugova.
Also looking for a share of the power is the Alliance for the Future of Kosovo (AAK), considered the third force in the country's politics.
The Vetevendosje (Self-determination) and FER (New Spirit) parties, both taking part in the elections for the first time, aim to woo young disenchanted voters.
Participation of Serbs in southern Kosovo was seen as a test of multi-ethnic credentials
In all, 29 parties and organizations fielded candidates for the 120-seat legislature, with 10 seats reserved for the Serb minority and another 10 for other ethnic groups.
Many ethnic Serbs boycotted the elections, with Serbia, which does not recognize Kosovo's independence, urging them to stay away. Participation in the north, which is linked directly by road to Serbia, was minimal.
About 60 percent of the Serb population left Kosovo in 1999, after NATO bombings that forced Serb troops out of the region.
Of the 120,000 Serbs who remain, about half live in the south, and many of them were expected to take part in the ballot. Their involvement was seen as a crucial test of Kosovo's claim to be a multi-ethnic state.
Since declaring independence, Kosovo has been recognized by 72 countries, including the United States and all but five of the EU's 27 members.
Author: Richard Connor, Gabriel Borrud, Martin Kuebler (AFP, dpa, Reuters)
Editor: Ben Knight