In Kosovo, voters have gone to the polls in the first election organized after the breakaway Serbian province declared independence in 2008. Observers say security was not a concern, but turnout could be.
These local elections are seen as critical for the newly independent Kosovo
Kosovo Prime Minister Hashim Thaci claimed victory for his party hours after polls closed Sunday night, although complete preliminary results weren't expected until later in the day, the Associated Press reported. Thaci claimed his party won in 20 of the country's 36 municipalities.
Voters in Kosovo have elected mayors and deputies for 36 town councils for the first time since the Albanian-majority region unilaterally declared its independence from Serbia in February last year.
"It's incredibly important for our country because it's not an international organization which is doing this, but Kosovo itself," said Driton Tafallari, a member of an NGO coalition called Democracy in Action, which monitored the election and the run-up to it.
Some 74 political parties, coalition citizens' groups and independent candidates participated in the election, which according to observers has gone smoothly despite fears that Serbia, which does not recognize Kosovo's independence, could try to derail the vote or keep ethnic Serbs in the north away from the polls.
"There are some problems in that area, but overall the elections are going very well," said Tafallari earlier Sunday.
While voter participation was one of the main concerns for election organizers and observers, officials estimated turnout to be about 45 percent, a slight increase from 42 percent in the last elections in 2007.
Observers were paying particular attention to the Serb minority, which Belgrade and the Serbian Orthodox Church had called on to boycott the elections.
The boycott appeared to be most effective in the north of the country, which borders Serbia, but many Serbs did participate in central Kosovo, where two-thirds of ethnic Serbs in Kosovo live.
“We live here and we see no other solution,” said 47-year-old farmer and ethnic Serb Slobodan Joksimovic, explaining why he chose to ignore the boycott.
Markus Bentler, KFOR commander in Kosovo
There are about 1.5 million people eligible to vote, although some 300,000 are Kosovo Albanians living outside Kosovo and another 100,000 are Kosovo Serbs in Serbia or Montenegro.
Other one-time worries, such as security concerns, also failed to materialize. Earlier this week, the top NATO official in Kosovo said the security situation was "very, very favorable" ahead of the vote.
German General Markus Bentler, commander of the NATO-led Kosovo peacekeeping mission known as KFOR, said his 13,000-strong force had no "indications that the election process will pose a security risk at the polling stations for the voters."
Low turnout is the biggest worry among observers
Although there are still high levels of tension in the north of Kosovo, Bentler said KFOR troops would be able to react at very short notice "if need be."
However, Ilir Deda, the executive director of the Kosovar Institute for Policy Research and Development, said general security concerns were not even on the table.
The main problem he has run across is accusations that Serbia had been intimidating ethnic Serbs in Kosovo, threatening them with the loss of financial support such as pensions, salaries or social benefits that still flow from Belgrade if they go to the polls.
Path to normality
"Despite that, we are satisfied with the way things are going. These elections are the first ones where we have a local election not centered on the cause of independence," Deda said. "It is about normal things, better public services, economic development, issues other countries campaign about."
The security situation is "very favorable" according to NATO
Last Monday, New Zealand became the 63rd country to recognize Kosovo's independence. The United States and most of the European Union also recognize Kosovo although Serbia's traditional ally, Russia, does not.
These elections are also important for Kosovo's international stature since Belgrade is challenging the legality of Kosovo's independence at the International Court of Justice, where hearings are set to begin on December 1.
Author: Kyle James (acb/AFP/AP)
Editor: Rick Demarest