In-depth | Local Elections 2021

Prishtina’s future mayor

Meet the top three contenders vying for the city.

On October 17, the residents of Prishtina will choose their new mayor and the government that will run the city for the next four years. One of the few mayoral elections this year in Kosovo without an incumbent, the race is hotly contested between the top three contenders: Vetëvendosje’s Arben Vitia, LDK’s Përparim Rama and PDK’s Uran Ismaili.

The competitive nature of the race appears to be forcing the parties to up their game. All three of these candidates have released comprehensive campaign platforms that go deep into how they are promising to run the city, at a greater level of detail than has been the norm in the past.

The platforms are notable for their big ideas and promises of transformation. Rama and Ismaili in particular, considered to be running behind the favored Vitia, are trying to pitch themselves as innovative and dynamic figures who are not just redefining their parties’ relationships to Prishtina, but will transform Prishtina itself.

Though the candidates may differ from each other personally, they see common problems in the city they are vying for, the same problems anyone living in Prishtina notices. Crippling traffic congestion and poor pedestrian access. Deadly winter air pollution and a depressing lack of green space. Underfunded public schools and unequal municipal attention across neighborhoods.

If there is a central campaign pillar that these three candidates have in common, it’s that they promise a greener Prishtina.

With relatively similar focuses in their platforms, and little ideological differentiation, the distinction between these candidates is more on the rhetorical or personal level. Who exactly are these three men vying to become Prishtina’s mayor? What are their personal and professional backgrounds? And what do their candidacies mean for their parties, for Prishtina and for Kosovo?

Arben Vitia — Vetëvendosje’s confident candidate

Until the beginning of October, it almost seemed that Arben Vitia was so sure he was going to win Prishtina’s mayoral race that he might not bother to campaign at all.

Vitia has a long track record in public service and political positions. Born in Prishtina in 1973, he started his career as a doctor in Mitrovica in 2003 before working for a time as an advisor to pharmaceutical companies. Most recently he served as minister of health during VV’s abbreviated time in power from February to June 2020, and then took up the position again in March 2021. He only just resigned on October 1 in order to focus on the mayoral race. 

His tenures as minister have coincided with two very different periods of the pandemic in Kosovo. Leaving the position the first time in June 2020, he was widely considered to have performed his job well under difficult conditions. His reputation also benefited from the general sense of outrage at the concerted efforts of political opponents in Kosovo and the Trump administration to unseat the newly elected VV government right at the outbreak of the pandemic.

His second tenure as minister overlapped with the worst period of the pandemic in Kosovo, when the Delta variant established itself in summer 2021 and the death rate peaked at over 30 per day. In contrast to his open and effective public statements at the beginning of the pandemic, during his second period as minister of health his public presence was less frequent and more guarded. 

At the same time, Vitia also oversaw the most hopeful moment of the pandemic when the vaccination campaign, though delayed, began in earnest.

Photo credit: Courtesy of the Vitia campaign.

Vitia finally gave his first public campaign presentation on October 4 flanked by Prime Minister Kurti and a number of current government ministers, a symbolic statement that Vitia’s mayorship would have the full support of the government. At the event Kurti introduced Vitia as the person he talks to first in the morning, and last in the day. With Vitia at least partially running on the strength of his crucial role as minister of health during the pandemic, his electoral chances will depend at least partially on voters’ opinion of his track record handling Covid.

With energetic opponents and widespread concerns about unclear, untimely and unevenly enforced public health measures, running his campaign as if it’s a referendum on the government’s handling of the pandemic might be risky.

Nevertheless, Prishtina residents should be familiar with Vitia’s track record in the city administration. A VV-stalwart since 2010, he became the head of the Department of Health and Social Welfare for Prishtina back in 2013 during Shpend Ahmeti’s first mandate. He continued with this position during Ahmeti’s second run in 2017, but his role ended in 2018 when Ahmeti split from VV.

In his role leading the Department of Health and Social Welfare, he gained a positive reputation and is often credited with modernizing the Family Healthcare Centers throughout the city.

Vitia is taking an understated approach to the election, in contrast to the flashy campaigns of his competitors.

Whereas other candidates have been eagerly pounding the pavement, Vitia appears confident that he can passively coast to victory based on the results of the last central election in Prishtina when he secured over 30,000 votes. In the same election his current opponent Uran Ismaili only received around 5,000 votes while Avdullah Hoti, LDK’s biggest vote-getter in the election, only received 11,000.

While Vitia’s opponents are campaigning on flashy promises to reimagine and reconstruct the city’s urban plan from the ground up, Vitia’s electoral platform sticks closer to bread and butter issues. He’s stated that he wants to bring equality of urban infrastructure across the city’s neighborhoods and he appears focused on social welfare and public health, his specialties. 

He has promised that Prishtina will have its own municipal hospital running within his mandate, and is planning to implement a preventive approach to public health in the city with the establishment of early detection programs in health centers and educational campaigns targeting youth.

To tackle air pollution, another public health issue in Prishtina, Vitia promises to reduce car usage by 30% by stimulating other modes of transportation. He also proposes providing an incentive to households that use wood as their source of heating to help them switch to a cleaner source. In addition, he wants to increase the number of air pollution measuring stations in the city to better understand the problem.

In education, he is promising to double the number of kindergartens and to initiate a “complete reform” of the education system, limiting classes to a maximum of 25 students per class, hiring more special needs assistants, and better equipping schools with necessary educational materials. He also promises to ensure school psychologists are available across the city.

Vitia has said that he plans to implement his program with work and “without too many words said,” an attitude consistent with his understated approach to the election and in contrast to the flashy campaigns of his competitors. 

Përparim Rama — LDK’s new blood

Unlike his two main opponents for mayor, until these local elections Përparim Rama had never been part of a party structure or served in a government job. When LDK’s head Lumir Abdixhiku announced the architect and political neophyte’s candidacy at the end of May, it didn’t come as much of a surprise. Abdixhiku himself had just taken over as head of the party in March following the LDK’s overwhelming defeat in the central elections. 

Tasked with rebuilding the public image of Kosovo’s oldest party, he has worked to bring fresh faces in to replace older LDK figures who are seen as responsible for the party’s recent downfall, particularly the fact that they alienated their most popular politician, President Vjosa Osmani, who decamped with her supporters to join VV’s coalition in the central elections.

Although his name is new in Kosovo politics, he has an established international career in the world of architecture and interior design. In 1992, when he was 16 years old, he moved to the U.K. where he completed his Bachelor’s and Master’s in architecture. He opened his own UK-based architecture firm in 2004 that has since garnered a number of awards.

Photo credit: Courtesy of the Rama campaign.

He rose to local prominence in 2012 when he represented Kosovo at the Venice Biennale of Architecture with an exhibit called “The Filigree Maker.” Just one year later he and his team won the First Prize in the 2013 World Interiors News Annual Award for the interior design of the Hamam Jazz Bar in Prishtina — one of the most prominent nightlife attractions in Prishtina for several years. 

Rama’s name was again in the local headlines in 2019 and 2020, though this time tied to controversy. His firm was planning to build a residential complex of 17 villas on the banks of Lake Badovc, one of Prishtina’s main sources of drinking water. Though the Municipality approved the plans, the project faced enormous backlash from a wide array of residents and environmentalists who feared the development could endanger the city’s water supply.

The project was eventually cancelled by Abdixhiku, who was minister of infrastructure during the first Kurti government. Abdixhiku said the decision was a result of the government’s aim to protect natural resources and give a voice to civic activism. After the start of his mayoral campaign, Rama again argued that the project was legal and environmentally friendly.

In his TV appearances Rama has said that the grandiosity of the many-domed National Library of Kosovo, near where he grew up in the central Ulpiana neighborhood, was the spark that led him to study architecture. The library, Rama said, “tells the character of Prishtina, of the Prishtinali, of someone that has confidence, that is innovative, that pushes things forward, that believes that it can be unique, that it can be different — this is what I think is the character of Prishtina.”

Rama is trying to win back the Prishtinali, the people who once made up LDK's base.

The comment reflects a central theme in his campaign rhetoric, an emphasis on his roots in central Prishtina. In particular, this appeal to the Prishtinali is an appeal to the city’s old residents who were historically LDK’s base before the city’s loyalties switched to VV in 2013. The term doesn’t refer to residents of Prishtina in general, but rather, with its Turkish adjectival suffix, to people with longer roots in the city, to families who were already well established in the city prior to the 1990s and the capital’s post-war population boom.

It is these people who once made up LDK’s base, the Prishtinali, who Rama is trying to win back with his promises to make the capital shine, with his mystique of international urbanity and with his cred on the local arts and culture scene.

In his first interview about the campaign, Rama said that he is “apolitical,” he is not a member of LDK and he doesn’t identify himself with any political party or ideology. He is pitching a plan of running a complex city bureaucracy, riven with political divisions, as an urbanist and an idealist, not a politician. Grandiose plans, rather than the details of running the everyday and quotidian aspects of a complex and confusing city, are his focus.

His platform centers around three “P’s”: Prishtina Praktike, Prishtina e Pastër and Prishtina e Përjetimeve, or, Practical Prishtina, Clean Prishtina and the Prishtina of Experiences.

Practical Prishtina refers to changes to the city’s infrastructure from education and health to parking problems and road safety. But the main focus is his dream to redefine Mother Theresa Square, extend it to comprise much of central Prishtina and increase pedestrian access to the site from surrounding neighborhoods.

This redefinition of the city center is aimed at redefining the hierarchy of traffic, placing pedestrians first, then public transport and cars last.

Clean Prishtina focuses on green mobility infrastructure, aiming to increase walking paths and accessibility for people with disabilities. It also highlights public transport connections to nearby villages and towns and includes waste management and recycling projects.

The final “P” of his program, the Prishtina of Experiences, is focused on the cultural life of the city. Alongside other ideas about cultural transformation, Rama promises the city will have an orchestra, a new theater, art gallery and a multifunctional event hall.

Uran Ismaili — PDK’s enthusiastic underdog

More than any other candidate, Uran Ismaili has shown with his enthusiasm throughout the campaign that he really wants to be mayor. In an attempt to shake the dust off the conservative PDK, his campaign has put the most effort into coming across as bringing innovative ideas.

Ismaili has been pitching a litany of trendy ideas in small personal meetings in practically every neighborhood of the city. In videos of his visits with longtime Prishtina residents or around a campfire with Germia’s joggers, he is trying to show a chatty and spontaneous side. He glides about the city in an e-scooter as part of an eco-friendly plank, and is doing podcasts and pitching his enthusiasm and positivity everywhere on social media.

His active and personal method of campaigning and his abundant energy are so distinctive that he’s become a meme. He knows it, and even references it in his social media posts.

Photo credit: Courtesy of the Ismaili campaign.

Despite all this positive energy and focus on new ideas, Ismaili faces an uphill battle in Prishtina. His problem is that he is a PDK man to his bones, a party that not just has limited support in Prishtina, but one that many in Prishtina practically define themselves in opposition to.

He isn’t just any PDK candidate either. Ismaili, who was born in Prishtina in 1979, joined the party in 2007. He has since been a party mainstay. He gained prominence in 2013 when he became Kadri Veseli’s chief of staff, and his power in the party has only grown since; in 2016, Veseli introduced Ismaili to the public as PDK’s vice president.

Ismaili’s rise continued in 2017 when he became the minister of health, a position he held until his now-opponent, Arben Vitia, took power in March 2020. In this position, like the ministers before him, he largely failed to make meaningful reforms to the healthcare system. 

He also had a history of false statements about his actions, such as assertions in 2018 and 2019 that the process to establish the long-awaited Health Insurance Fund was complete. The fund has still not yet been established.

Since May 2019 when Ismaili became the PDK branch president for Prishtina, he has been trying to redefine the relationship between the capital and his party. He knows he is starting out at a disadvantage in the mayoral race and that he will have to work twice as hard as others to win trust. His campaign’s eagerness reflects this fact.

Ismaili’s campaign, “Prishtina na bashkon,” or, “Prishtina Unites Us,” is centered around revitalizing the city’s public space. In campaign videos he intervenes throughout the city fixing benches, installing bins and painting sports fields, giving a teaser of the bigger changes he envisions. Even these teasers have caused a buzz. In one campaign video Tirana Mayor Erion Veliaj, a fan of faddish urban renewal projects, shows up to spend the night at Ismaili and his wife’s Prishtina apartment and join in the urban interventions. In the video they discuss the challenges in the city and Ismaili receives the implicit support of the popular Tirana mayor.

Despite all his positive energy and focus on new ideas, Ismaili faces an uphill battle in Prishtina. Many locals practically define themselves in opposition to PDK.

Though these interventions are little more than PR stunts, they speak to part of Ismaili’s platform, which promises to institute minimum standards across the city, meaning things like adequate lighting, increasing the number of garbage collection points and maintaining parks and recreation space.

He is also proposing projects that have already been initiated by the current administration, such as a planned renovation of a house of culture in Llukar and improvements to the Ulpiana market. He plans to transform the abandoned brick factory “Tulltorja” into a culture and innovation center, something that is already in the works as part of the Manifesta 2022 arts biennial.

Much like other candidates, Ismaili recognizes that traffic congestion, air pollution and ecological concerns are some of the biggest challenges facing the city. His platform centers around four pillars: traffic, cleanness, green initiatives and digitalization. 

He plans to reduce the number of cars coming into the capital by building commuter parking lots at the entrances to the city that will have special bus routes into the center. At the same time, he promises that every family in the city will have a guaranteed parking spot, that he will build 100 kilometers of bike lanes and that buses will be free for everyone.

An additional green initiative is the proposal to create a green belt through the city, connecting existing and new green areas. A central part of this plan is to build an eight hectare park around the Fadil Vokrri Stadium, implying the removal of existing buildings in the surrounding area. He is also promising to build a center for treating trash and to implement city-wide recycling by 2024.

On the digital front, Ismaili promises more efficient public services through digitalization as well as supplying schools with computers and tablets and making computer coding a part of the school curriculum.

Though his chances of winning may be low, he has put on the most convincing PDK mayoral campaign ever in Prishtina, a city deeply skeptical of his party.K

Feature image: K2.0.


This article has been produced with the financial support of the “Balkan Trust for Democracy,” a project of the German Marshall Fund of the United States and the Royal Norwegian Embassy in Belgrade. Opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of the Royal Norwegian Embassy in Belgrade, the Balkan Trust for Democracy, the German Marshall Fund of the United States, or its partners.