Perspectives | Local Elections 2017

Nerves and surprises as local political landscape continues to shift

By - 20.11.2017

Prishtina and Prizren still too tight to call.

If the saying that “every single vote matters” could have been considered a “cliche” in the past, yesterday’s mayoral election runoffs have bolstered the mantra. In many municipalities, just a handful of votes will determine who becomes mayor, while the two biggest cities of Prishtina and Prizren must await the outcome of postal and “conditional” votes — those where the eligibility of the voter still need to be verified — before anyone can be certain of the result; preliminary results from the Central Election Commission currently indicate an extremely slim victory for Vetevendosje’s candidates in both cities.

The results of yesterday’s democracy in action have changed the picture from the first round held on October 22, with many shifts and surprises all around the country.

Not only is Vetevendosje’s Shpend Ahmeti seemingly hanging onto the capital by his fingernails and a non-LDK or PDK mayor looks set to govern Prizren for the first time since the war, but in Gjakova incumbent mayor Mimoza Kusari-Lila was unseated by her rival, while in Mitrovica well-known civil society figure Valdete Idrizi failed to win the mayorship for PDK. In total, candidates who received the most votes in the first round failed to win the runoff in five municipalities.

The party with the most to celebrate is AAK, which not only regained Gjakova from Kusari-Lila, but also unseated PDK’s incumbents in Klina and Rahovec and gained Suhareka from LDK, while it held onto the mayorship in Obiliq; AAK had already secured its traditional strongholds of Decan and Junik had in the first round. Most notably for AAK, is not only the number of municipalities that it will govern but that it has managed to transcend its traditional geographical bases, which have seen it labelled as a “Dukagjini Party.”

Mixed fortunes for almost all

With perhaps the exception of AAK, all other parties in Kosovo seem to have been given serious pause for thought.

As the results stand — and things could yet change — it can be concluded that PDK experienced the biggest slide, with its one gain coming from LDK in Ferizaj, which it seems will be the only one of the seven big regional cities that it will govern.

PDK considered it’s first round results to be “impressive” as they managed to come first in many cities such as Prizren, Mitrovica, Vushtrri and Klina ― yesterday’s results changed the reality in all of these municipalities as they appear not to have secured a single one.

While the political landscape is still not completely clear as the last votes are yet to be counted, it seems that there is somewhat of an anti-PDK sentiment in many parts of the country. This was not necessarily reflected by parties making official coalitions with each other, but more by the readiness of the electorate to seek change. The most obvious case is in Prizren, where Vetevendosje had not signed a coalition with LDK, but without the votes of traditional LDK supporters it would have been unimaginable for Vetevendosje’s candidate, Mytaher Haskuka, to overturn the 5,000 vote advantage that PDK’s Shaqir Totaj had from the first round.

Shpend Ahmeti is just 309 votes ahead of LDK’s Arban Abrashi, with more than 1,500 conditional votes and postal votes still to be counted, and nothing is guaranteed just yet.

In Vushtrri, LDK and Vetevendosje did sign a coalition agreement after the first round, a move that helped to ensure a big runoff comeback by the LDK candidate. Xhafer Tahiri almost doubled his number of voters from the first round, going from 8,000 to nearly 15,000, to secure the mayorship.

LDK was widely considered to have been the biggest winner after the first round, by winning four mayorships outright, and entering the runoffs in a further 10, while having the highest share of the vote nationwide.

Yesterday’s results have somewhat clouded that impressive performance as it lost six out of the 10 runoffs it was competing; particularly painful will be the apparent failure to regain control of the capital city that it lost last time around. Its hopes of overturning a first round deficit in Ferizaj — as it did in 2013 when the same two candidates were competing in the runoff — also failed. As had been predicted in advance, LDK lacked the support of traditional Vetevendosje voters here, with Vetevendosje’s local leadership rejecting a coalition and equating the practices of LDK in its mandate with those of PDK in the preceding four years.

LDK’s Sali Asllanaj was unseated by AAK’s Bali Muharemaj in Suhareka, although Lufti Haziri did secure 64 percent of the votes against Vetevendosje’s Sami Kurteshi in Gjilan, which will be the second of the big-seven regional cities in which LDK will continue to govern, alongside Peja that it won in the first round.

Vetevendosje had an equally mixed night. As they stand, the results suggest that it has won three out of the six municipalities that it was competing for in the runoffs, although uncertainty in its flagship seat of Prishtina means that celebrations were muted.

Shpend Ahmeti is just 309 votes ahead of LDK’s Arban Abrashi, with more than 1,500 conditional votes and postal votes still to be counted, and nothing is guaranteed just yet. Even if he clings onto the mayorship, it will be an inglorious victory for Ahmeti, who seems underwhelmed by last night’s results. The fact that Ahmeti may be reconfirmed as mayor with just a few hundred — or perhaps a few dozen — votes, sends a clear signal that citizens are deeply polarized over his mayorship.

Without a doubt, the potential victory in Prizren of Mytaher Haskuka — who leads by 329 votes with more than 1,000 conditional and postal votes to be counted — would prove to be a sweet victory for Vetevendosje, as PDK’s Shaqir Totaj won the first round by more than 5,000 votes.

The one victory that Vetevendosje looks assured of is the eastern town of Kamenice, where Qendron Kastrati increased his first round advantage over four-term LDK mayor, Shaip Surdulli, despite LDK having secured the support of PDK ahead of the runoff.

Lessons all round

Even while the parties and candidates await the certified results from the Central Election Commission, they can already learn some important lessons from the electorate.

Firstly, alongside June’s general election results earthquake, it seems another cliche will enter into our political vocabulary. “There are no political strongholds.” That doesn’t mean that votes are now never bought and that there has been an overnight enlightenment. But Kosovar voters are beginning to prove that they are not satisfied with the status quo, and have seemingly voted to either punish candidates who have not done enough, or to cause those who have been elected to reflect.

In the case of Prizren voters have signalled to PDK that their mantra of the city being their “Jerusalem” is over. PDK also has to learn that it will take a big effort to convince voters that simple cosmetic changes, by bringing in well established figures from civil society, such as in Mitrovica, at the expense of deep-rooted reforms within the party are not enough. PDK must also reflect on the reasons as to why in many cities other parties made formal or informal coalitions with each other to unseat them or keep them from power.

The case of Ferizaj should serve as an example of how nobody should either feel comfortable in power or apply the practices that have previously been rejected at the ballot box. Here, voters refused to back LDK in the second round, punishing them for failing to establish practises in the past four years other than those of nepotism and clientelism; paradoxically, in doing so, they have returned power to those it was taken from four years ago.

By refusing to accommodate politicians that take the voters for granted, Kosovar voters are contributing to diminishing the chances of the misuse of power and the creation of power monopolies.

In Prishtina, Vetevendosje must reflect that consensus is needed, and the polarized politics that it has helped to cultivate has put its control of the capital at risk. The provisional narrow victory in Prishtina should also be read as a signal for Ahmeti to show less arrogance, while the next four years will be the biggest test for him yet.

Vetevendosje can also take away from the results that candidates relying on professionalism and not only on their profile in the past, can pay off. But it must also pay more attention and become more engaged in big cities like Ferizaj, Mitrovica, Gjakova and Peja, where its local structures have been weak and poorly organized. Vetevendosje was wrong if it thought votes in the parliamentary elections would necessarily be converted into support at the local level, while their engagement in many local municipalities has been modest.

If the two-round system of mayoral elections is to continue in Kosovo — there are discussions as to whether the runoff should be dropped — political parties also need to calculate if their candidates are likely to be accepted more universally, or whether they are popular with their core supporters but alienate others.

By refusing to accommodate politicians that take the voters for granted, Kosovar voters are contributing to diminishing the chances of the misuse of power and the creation of power monopolies. This might ultimately lead to educate politicians across the political spectrum, both old and young, that ego and power are short-lived — the politics of principles will last and it is desperately sought by ordinary citizens.K

Feature image: K2.0.