PRISTINA, KOSOVO - Voting has begun in Kosovo's snap parliamentary elections after a campaign dominated by the issues of corruption, high unemployment, and a possible peace deal with Serbia that would clear the way for Kosovo's membership in the United Nations.
Valdete Daka, head of the Central Election Commission, was among the first to vote in Pristina on Sunday when the polls opened at 7 a.m. local time. She urged all Kosovars to cast a ballot before the polls close at 7 p.m.
Kosovo President Hashim Thaci also called for as much citizen participation as possible, and for a free and fair election process. Thaci said in a Facebook post on October 6 that the new government which emerges as a result of the vote should "improve the lives of our citizens and face the challenges ahead."
"We have built a tradition of holding good elections. Let Kosovo win today," Thaci added.
Some 1.9 million people are eligible to cast ballots. They will elect 120 lawmakers in what is Kosovo's fourth parliamentary election since it declared independence from Serbia in 2008.
"Voting was very easy but let’s see what our votes will bring,” said 46-year-old taxi driver Avdi Morina after casting his ballot at a sports hall in Pristina.
Mentor Nimani, a 47-year-old university lecturer of international law in Pristina, said before casting his ballot that Kosovo needs "freedom, a state governed by the rule of law, prosperity, and economic development."
Retired doctor Muharrem Bajrami said after voting in Kosovo's capital that voters want "well-being and jobs for young people."
Kosovo has Europe’s youngest population with an average age of 29, and economic growth has averaged 4 percent over the past decade. But it remains very poor — unemployment is 25 percent — and more than 200,000 Kosovars have left and applied for asylum in the European Union since Pristina won its independence.
The election was triggered by the resignation of Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj in July after war crimes prosecutors at The Hague summoned him for questioning over his wartime role as a commander of the Kosovo Liberation Army (UCK).
Public dissatisfaction with the record of Haradinaj's three-party governing coalition has boosted the chances of opposition parties, with the center-right Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK) and the nationalist, left-leaning Vetevendosje vying for first place.
The LDK's candidate for prime minister, Vjosa Osmani, told RFE/RL's Balkan Service that her election as Kosovo's first female prime minister could be "transformative not only for the institutions of Kosovo but for society as a whole."
Osmani vowed to usher in a "new mindset" and ruled out governing alongside the long-in-power Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK) after partnering with it in the recent three-party coalition.
She also pledged that, "instead of investing the bulk of the budget in asphalt," her government would "completely turn its focus to investing in human capital."
Other potential prime ministers are thought to include Haradinaj, running for the Alliance for the Future of Kosovo (AAK) and packaging himself as a seasoned "21st-century statesman"; PDK leader Kadri Veseli, who as parliamentary speaker dissolved the legislature to set the stage for these elections; Fatmir Limaj, a deputy prime minister in the outgoing coalition and leader of the Social Democratic Initiative (NISMA); and Albin Kurti, leader of the nationalist Self-Determination (Vetevendosje) party, which has used extreme methods like throwing tear gas and water bottles in parliament to protest against deals with Serbia.
With the exception of Osmani, all of the leading contenders for the prime minister's post are former members of the Kosovo Liberation Army, an ethnic-Albanian separatist militia that fought against Serb authorities in Kosovo's 1998-1999 war that ended when NATO intervened on behalf of the ethnic Albanian majority.
Ten seats of the 120 are reserved for ethnic Serbs and another 10 are set aside for other minorities, including ethnic Turks and Roma.
The Serb community is represented in the election by four political entities - the Kosovo Serb Party from Leposavic, the Gracanica-based Freedom Coalition, the Independent Liberal Party, also from Gracanica, and the Serb List based in North Mitrovica.
The total number of voters in 10 Serb-majority municipalities is over 117,000, while 50 candidates are competing for the 10 seats reserved for ethnic Serbs.
Candidates from the Serb List voted together at a polling station in North Mitrovica immediately after the polling station opened.
With them were workers of institutions funded by the Republic of Serbia. Based on a Central Election Committee decision, voting is only allowed with Kosovo documents.
Kosovo’s independence has been recognized by more than 110 states but not by others, including five EU members, as well as Serbia, Russia, and China.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic announced during last month's UN General Assembly that he was "working on new withdrawals of recognition" from some UN states.
European Union-sponsored talks aimed at normalizing ties between the two countries stalled last year over Kosovo's decision to impose a 100 percent tax on goods from Serbia.
The EU has sent a 61-member team of observers for the election to show that Pristina "remains a political priority."
The EU regards Kosovo as at a crossroads, but Brussels' leverage is limited amid an ongoing Brexit debate, some members' reluctance to recognize Kosovo, and little prospect of early entry for aspiring members.
So Haradinaj and others have largely sought to tap into voters' perceptions of Western support for Kosovo via the United States.
Haradinaj, endorsed by two of the outgoing ruling coalition's parties, has publicly declared his good relations with Americans while at the same time suggesting that Washington is an ally of Kosovo but not of all Kosovar politicians.
Billboards for the PDK variously showed party leader Veseli next to U.S. President Donald Trump and ex-President Bill Clinton, whose decision to intervene militarily in 1999 won him lasting admirers in Kosovo.
U.S. and European officials have repeatedly dismissed the idea that they supported any particular sides in Kosovo's election.
But the potential for even unofficial American influence among Kosovar voters was thrust into sharper relief this week by a campaign appearance in Pristina by Trump's former acting attorney general, Matthew Whitaker, for the PDK.
Whitaker, now a political consultant, expressed support for his "friend" Veseli at an October 1 rally as a potential "prime minister that looks to the United States for friendship and support."
Not to be outdone, the leader of Kosovar independence icon Ibrahim Rugova's former party, the Democratic League of Kosovo chief Isa Mustafa, responded that "if anyone is with America, it is the Democratic League of Kosovo," adding that the PDK's billboards were an "abuse" of U.S. prestige.
The U.S. Embassy in Pristina was quick to reiterate that it didn't "endorse or support" any one candidate or party in the Kosovo vote.
In August, the so-called Quint states — Italy, France, Germany, the United States, and the United Kingdom — challenged Pristina and Belgrade to restart talks "with urgency" and said the current stalemate was "not sustainable."
And Washington showed its concern with the quagmire when the White House announced on October 3 that Richard Grenell, the U.S. ambassador to Germany, was named as the special envoy for Serbia and Kosovo peace negotiations.
That suggests that no matter who next takes the reins of government in Kosovo, they will immediately face tough decisions about how and when to reengage with neighbor Serbia and the rest of Europe.
But there's no telling whether that's sufficient incentive for Kosovo's voters.
"I'm selling nine votes or exchanging them for Golf 2 seats," read one of the many offers of votes for cash last week on MerrJep.com, one of Kosovo's most popular buy-and-sell sites.
A MerrJep representative told RFE/RL's Balkan Service that the site was trying to weed out such offers — selling votes is illegal — but that its small staff just couldn't keep up.