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Kosovo's Opposition Leader Appears Heading To Victory

A former guerrilla leader who helped NATO forces oust Serb forces from Kosovo and now seeks independence, is poised to become the province's new prime minister. Exit polls give Hashim Thaci a clear lead over his rivals in Saturday's elections, although his Democratic Party of Kosovo will likely be forced to form a coalition. As Stefan Bos reports, Thaci has already pledged to declare Kosovo's independence as early as next month.

Although ballots are still being counted, opposition leader Hashim Thaci appears in a victorious mood at the headquarters of his Democratic Party of Kosovo in Pristina.

The 39-year-old former guerrilla fighter, who led the war against Serbia in the late 1990s, was qouted by the Associated Press Television (APT) as saying, if elected, he will declare Kosovo independent after a deadline ends for internationally supervised talks with Serbia. "Immediately after 10th of December institutions of Kosovo will declare independence," he said.

But not many of Kosovo's 1.5 million eligible voters cast ballots Saturday. Election observers estimated below 50 percent of voters were recorded at the voting sites,the lowest turnout in recent years. Minority Serbs, who oppose independence, boycotted the parliamentary and municipal elections.

The United Nations Deputy Special Representative in Kosovo, Stephen Schook, sees the low turnout as a major set-back for the province.

"I am disappointed. I'm disappointed for many reasons. Look, I happen to value very, very highly the opportunity to vote, and I don't agree with some of the rhetoric which came out from both Belgrade, and some of the leadership here in North Ibar. I think any time that you give up an opportunity to vote you are giving up a piece of yourself, you are giving up an opportunity to put people in place to be the leadership that you choose to lead you, and take care of your needs and your requirements," stated Schook.

In Saturday's election voters have been casting ballots for municipalities and 120 seats in Kosovo's parliament.

If preliminary results are confirmed, the Democratic Party of Kosovo will likely form a government with the current ruling Democratic League of Kosovo, which has not yet fully recovered from the death last year of its founder, and former President Ibrahim Rugova.

Agim Ceku, a former guerilla commander who filled the role of prime minister since his predecessor resigned almost two years ago, did not stand in the elections. Some 150 Council of Europe observers and 25,000 local monitors watched for irregularities.

Final official results are expected early next week.