AFP, October 27, 2002
Kosovo polls marred by low turnout of Serb voters
Kosovo's local elections, a test of UN efforts to ensure the Serb minority is represented in the province's Albanian-dominated political bodies, was marred by a low turnout among Serbs, officials said.
The poll is seen as a stepping stone in the process of transfering power to local structures from the United Nations, which has run Kosovo since the end of the war there in 1999, and high Serb participation in the vote was a UN priority.
The election is the second local ballot since the end of the war in 1999. Kosovo's Serb minority boycotted the first local poll, in 2000, but took part in the parliamentary election in November 2001.
Overall turnout on Saturday was estimated at over 50 percent by the time polling stations closed at 7 pm (1700 GMT), said Poul Smidt, spokesman for the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which supervised the ballot.
But Serbs, who make up some 180,000 of the 1.3 million people eligible to vote in the election, shunned the ballot in large numbers, observers said.
"Some 14 percent of those (Serbs) registered in Kosovo had voted by 3 pm," said Milena Jaksic of the Belgrade-based Centre for Free Elections and Democracy (CESID).
Displaced Kosovo Serbs living outside the province also stayed away from polling stations, with only seven percent casting their ballots by the afternoon, the OSCE said.
More than 200,000 Serbs fled Kosovo in 1999 to other parts of Serbia or neighbouring Montenegro, fearing revenge attacks by ethnic Albanians after Belgrade's troops pulled out and NATO-led peacekeepers (KFOR) began to deploy throughout Kosovo.
The 180,000 Serb voters eligible to take part in Saturday's election were allowed to cast their ballots in Kosovo itself, elsewhere in Serbia or in Montenegro, Serbia's smaller partner in the rump Yugoslavia.
Only about 80,000 Serbs remain in the province, leading an isolated life under heavy KFOR protection.
In Kosovska Mitrovica, an ethnic hotspot north of the provincial capital Pristina, turnout was also low in the northern part of town populated by Serbs.
"I can only confirm that there is a very low turnout in the northern part of Mitrovica," Smidt said.
The OSCE said it did not have figures for the overall Serb turnout in the province. "We have not registered the voters based on ethnicity, so we cannot tell you that," Smidt said.
The overall voter turnout had reached around 40 percent by 3 pm (1300 GMT) throughout Kosovo, the OSCE said.
Kosovo's two communities have led parallel lives since the war, with the ethnic Albanians hoping to gain independence and the Serbs looking to return the province to Belgrade rule.
The Serbs complain that both the UN and NATO have failed to protect their communities from ethnic Albanian reprisals or create the security conditions necessary for the return of refugees.
But Serbs who turned out for the election said they believed living conditions would improve.
"Things will get better in time and these elections are a step towards that. Both sides can live together but nothing would come out without elections," said Zoran Savic, a 43-year-old Serb living in Pristina.
The UN had hoped Serb participation in Saturday's vote -- for control of Kosovo's 30 local councils -- would demonstrate that Western efforts to promote reconciliation and lay the foundations for multi-ethnic democracy were succeeding.
Many Albanians saw the vote as a means of moving towards independence from Belgrade.
The main ethnic Albanian political parties -- the League of Democratic Kosovo (LDK) of Kosovo's President Ibrahim Rugova and the Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK) of former rebel leader Hashim Thaci -- are the leading contenders in the polls among the Albanian majority.
"I hope the leaders will keep their promises, make life better and be united in getting us to independence," said Ahmet Ahmeti, who works for Kosovo's power company.
Some 5,700 candidates stood in the election, for around 900 council seats.
Kosovo's local authorities have only limited powers but the UN has signalled its readiness to hand over more responsibilities to them during their four-year mandate.
The OSCE said preliminary results of the vote, supervised by some 1,000 international and 12,000 local observers, were expected late on Monday.