Perspectives | Local Elections 2017

Lessons all round after mayoral elections

By - 25.10.2017

Kosovo’s main political parties all have reasons to reflect.

While Kosovo’s main political parties are all publicly hailing their victories and successes in Sunday’s mayoral elections, the pragmatists within each will immediately be looking to learn lessons. Whisper it quietly, but the results, for most, were actually somewhat chastening.

The transition of the reality of Kosovar politics, evidenced by Vetevendosje’s unparalleled gains in June’s general election, was once again on show with these results — if in a less dramatic fashion than in the summer. Political parties have been subtly schooled by the citizens that they should forget their comfort zones and set about addressing the existential problems of local people.

The provisional results have particularly reconfirmed the fracturing of the political dominance of LDK and PDK, who, despite Kosovo’s multi-party system, between them have governed most of the Albanian-majority municipalities for the past 18 years since the war. Notable exceptions are some of the Dukagjini municipalities run by AAK, AKRs victories in Mitrovica and Gjakova in 2013, and Vetevendosje’s Shpend Ahmeti winning the mayorship in the capital last time out.

Sunday’s election has seen a continuing shift in the sands of power. Vetevendosje in particular has made major strides at the local level, doubling its number of votes since 2013, and increasing its share of the vote across the country. It will enter runoffs on November 19 with either LDK or PDK in six municipalities, including in the major cities of Prizren and Gjilan, as well as in Prishtina once again; previously, Ahmeti’s second round victory in Prishtina was its only appearance in a runoff. While none of these mayorships are by any means guaranteed, the picture of the distribution of power in various municipalities might look even more colorful in a month’s time.

The party with perhaps the most to celebrate is LDK, which received more votes nationwide than any other party.

But while the results for Vetevendosje are impressive compared to four years ago, many within the party will be disappointed that it has not made quite the same waves at the local level as it did back in June, failing to reach the second round in Ferizaj or Mitrovica (cities in which it topped the popular vote during the recent national elections) or in Gjakova (where it came second in June to the PDK-AAK-Nisma coalition). Requiring a runoff in Prishtina, where Ahmeti was hoping to win outright, will also cause anxiety in the weeks ahead.

PDK has taken a few blows although no knock-out punch. Compared to the 2013 local elections, PDK seems to have lost some influence in the Anamorava region (Gjilan, Kamenice and Viti) as Vetevendosje will replace it in the runoff with LDK in Gjilan and Kamenice, while in Viti the LDK candidate won outright. On the other hand, PDK will enter runoffs in Ferizaj and Mitrovice with a first-round advantage over the incumbent mayors from LDK and AKR respectively.  

It’s first round victory in its heartland of Drenas was predictably secured, but it failed to secure 50 percent of the vote share in any other municipality, requiring a second round in Shtime, Skenderaj and Kacanik — all mayorships that it won outright in 2013. Its runoff count is also down, with only nine second round contests to contest next month, compared to 11 in 2013.

The party with perhaps the most to celebrate is LDK, which received more votes nationwide than any other party. It added the major coup of Peja to its first round victories from 2013, winning four municipalities outright in total, up one from last time. However LDK also took its hits, the biggest of which is undoubtedly the failure to reach the runoff in Prizren, while it will also only have 10 runoffs in total, compared to 13 in 2013.

No more comfort zones

Sunday’s voting has on the whole given a headache to parties across the political spectrum, which can have an impact on improving democracy on many fronts.

Firstly, after June’s poll, this month’s local elections have once again affirmed that the comfort zone for political parties that rely on traditional strongholds is coming to an end — they will have to start working for all votes. Not long ago, it would have been difficult to imagine a runoff in Istog or Podujeva, both LDK strongholds, but both of these municipalities are heading to a second round, with candidates from AAK and Vetevendosje respectively supplying the opposition.

This is not to say that strongholds have ceased entirely — for instance, in smaller towns there are still strong concentrations of power. Decan and Junik continue to remain AAK heartland, Drenas has been solidly PDK since the end of the war and shows no sign of shifting, nor does the domination of LDK in Fushe Kosove.

But more generally, traditional voting patterns can no longer necessarily be relied upon and all political parties will have to learn to stop calculating voters as their property. These results should contribute to political parties concentrating their efforts in every corner of the country, working closely with the electorate as it is noticeable that voters’ preferences can change, even within months. Such a lesson has been transmitted to all political parties, without exception.

Some politicians are beginning to understand that counting on past results, even those of a few months ago, is a false expectation and you can ill-afford to stand still.

The shifting of votes since June was especially felt by Vetevendosje, which has suffered somewhat of an earthquake in this regard. Within less than five months, Vetevendosje went down from 200,000 votes in the national election to 130,000 votes this time around.

Although having doubled its voters since the local elections in 2013, the drift away from the party since the summer has still had left many surprised, including the founder of the movement, Albin Kurti, who hinted in a Facebook post on Monday at the need for “self-criticism” within Vetevendosje following the results.

It is a sign that some politicians are beginning to understand that counting on past results, even those of a few months ago, is a false expectation and you can ill-afford to stand still.

While many have highlighted this drastic change in votes, others have quickly pointed out that comparing parliamentary and local elections is misleading as there are different voters and different voting patterns. Such a claim cannot be denied.

The hardcore political issues upon which Vetevendosje secured more than 200,000 votes are not necessarily the same as those that citizens are voting on at the local level of governance, where different issues are at play. Local politics requires connecting with people in their neighborhoods, and it is not enough to rely largely on a central message. That’s exactly the lesson to be learnt by Vetevendosje — which has less well established local party structures than its main opponents — that can also serve all other parties: Blind loyalty toward any party is not guaranteed.

However, the behavior of the central party and its message should not be completely discounted or underestimated either; the overall patterns of the fortunes of parties compared to four years ago do broadly mirror how well they did in June — Vetevendosje’s vote share increased significantly, PDK’s declined.

The exception is LDK, which received a knock in the national elections, but whose support locally broadly held up compared to four years ago. What explains this performance by LDK, which also increased its number of voters compared to June?

It’s hard to pinpoint just one reason. However, the value that Kosovar voters place in consistency between words and actions is likely to be a key factor; voters are thought to have punished LDK in June for reneging on its word not to join a coalition with PDK in 2014, a lesson that LDK looks to have learnt by sticking to its word and refusing to join another coalition with PDK in this summer’s post-election negotiations. Having reflected on their “mistake” — as their Prishtina candidate, Arban Abrashi, termed it — thousands of voters have returned to LDK in a few short months.

Each party is trying to spin the results as a victory of their own, but in reality each party has been given food for thought — take the votes of citizens for granted at your peril.K

Feature image: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.