Perspectives | Elections 2019

Winners and losers as new era of Kosovar politics dawns

By - 08.10.2019

VV’s remarkable rise and LDK’s bounceback as others left licking their wounds.

Kosovo’s election scene looks set for a major shakeup as the results from Sunday’s parliamentary elections become clear. Although the final votes are still being counted — and certified results from the Central Election Commission (CEC) aren’t expected for days — the word on everyone’s lips is “change.”

For the first time in Kosovo’s history as an independent state, the Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK), beset for years by corruption scandals and persistent accusations of having “captured the state,” looks set for a period in opposition, despite having tried to amend the party’s image by running on an anti-corruption message. Party leader and prime ministerial candidate Kadri Veseli has conceded as much himself, with his party looking set to finish in third place, a few percentage points behind Vetëvendosje (VV) and the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK).

While many commentators predicted that the elections would come down to a tight race between the two major opposition parties, it was still hard to believe for a generation of voters who have never known anything other than PDK being at the center of Kosovar politics. But as the percentage of results counted steadily rose and the opposition parties consolidated a healthy lead, the question of which of the two would edge the other became the central theme of election night.

The indicators are that VV will ultimately have its slender victory at the top of the polls confirmed in the quest to form a new government, as it maintains the slenderest of leads over LDK; the respective reactions of the two leaders watching the votes come in suggests that they knew which way the wind was blowing. While VV’s Albin Kurti declared victory and gave a rousing speech to Albanian flag-waving supporters in the center of Prishtina, LDK’s Vjosa Osmani appeared subdued at a press conference in which she said that it would not be possible to determine who had won until all votes had been counted; that message was repeated again on Monday.

Whoever ends up heading the next government, after such a tight race, they will not be able to simply sit back and ride a wave of popular support.

With more than 20,000 diaspora votes left to be counted — a large proportion of which are anticipated to go to VV — it would be a surprise if LDK were to leapfrog their rivals into first place at this stage.

There has long been talk of some form of VV-LDK coalition, and both parties have said they will enter into talks to try and form a government. The devil will of course be in the detail and the negotiations will be tough, but with both parties having repeatedly ruled out teaming up with PDK and no other combination of parties likely to have the numbers for a majority, supporters of both parties will expect their leaderships to strike some form of coalition deal.

The new government, whenever it is formed, has no shortage of issues to address: widespread unemployment, particularly amongst young people, a health care system in shambles, an education system not fit for purpose, deepset corruption and nepotism in key institutions and a final agreement with Serbia still out of reach. 

It will also have to work out how to work with Serb representatives, with Belgrade-backed Srpska Lista (Serb List) having strengthened its grip on the seats reserved for minority candidates after having been repeatedly accused by political rivals of running a campaign based on threats, intimidation and undue pressure.

And whoever ends up heading the next government, after such a tight race, they will not be able to simply sit back and ride a wave of popular support — the hard work will start on day one.

But there is a general sense that this has been an historic election in Kosovo’s recent history; a changing of the guard and a breath of fresh air at the end of a process that has demonstrated a growing political maturity amongst the country’s ruling class.

From ‘radical protest movement’ to Kosovo’s next government?

Vetëvendosje’s rise to the top of the polls and the verge of government represents the pinnacle of a meteoric rise over the course of the past decade and a half. Founded as a protest movement in 2005, it only contested parliamentary elections for the first time less than a decade ago. 

The party’s roots can be traced back to the Kosova Action Network, an activist group founded in 1997 at the height of the Milošević regime that demanded social change and active citizenship. 

In its early days as a political movement, Levizja VETËVENDOSJE! (the Self-Determination Movement) activists sprayed graffiti on walls of premises belonging to the UN Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) declaring Jo Negociata (No Negotiations) — a symbol of their opposition to internationally led talks at the time over the “final status” of Kosovo. VV particularly objected to the decentralization process, part of the Ahtisaari Plan upon which Kosovo’s independence was ultimately based, arguing that the creation of new Serb-majority municipalities would have the effect of splitting Kosovo along ethnic lines.

Over the years, they would repeatedly protest at the lack of transparency and what they saw as imposed decision-making from UNMIK, which had extensive executive powers at both national and local level over areas including lawmaking, the judiciary and policing.

VV has been equally vocal and active against domestic corruption among Kosovo’s leaders.

Their direct action methods, including blockades, tipping official vehicles and mass street protests that frequently resulted in clashes with police, often proved divisive amongst the general population and led to Kurti and others being arrested on numerous occasions. In 2007, two VV activists were shot dead by Romanian UNMIK police, who fired rubber bullets into a crowd of protesters at close range.

After the EU Rule of Law Mission (EULEX) took over many of UNMIK’s executive competencies when Kosovo declared independence in 2008, it became the focus of much of VV’s energies, particularly when the mission became embroiled in high profile allegations of corruption within its own ranks. 

But VV has been equally vocal and active against domestic corruption amongst Kosovo’s leaders, leading thousands in protest against a Serb minister within Kosovo’s government who used degrading language about Albanians in 2015 and against the appointment of former PDK leader Hashim Thaçi as president a year later. Both those protests resulted in unrest on the streets of Prishtina as protesters clashed with riot police firing tear gas and using water cannons. 

During the same period, VV also effectively brought domestic politics to a standstill as its deputies began releasing tear gas within the Assembly chamber in a tactic designed to prevent parliament from sitting after the LDK-PDK coalition signed two controversial international agreements in August 2015; VV argued that the first, agreeing to establish an Association of Serb Majority Municipalities in Kosovo, would further divide Kosovo along ethnic lines and would effectively make the state ungovernable, and that the second, demarcating the country’s border with Montenegro, would give away 8,000 hectares of Kosovo’s territory.

During the height of its disruptive protests, embassies of many of Kosovo’s key allies such as the U.S. would not officially meet with VV leaders.

Both those agreements were strongly pushed by the international community, as is the dialogue process with Serbia that VV has always strongly opposed; it has long argued that Kosovo should not be negotiating anything with Serbia until its neighbor acknowledges the war crimes committed in Kosovo, pays reparations and sheds light on the whereabouts of the bodies of more than 1,600 people still missing from the war. Rather than negotiating with a foreign state that has shown few — if any — signs of good faith toward Kosovo, VV argues that efforts should instead be focused on establishing a meaningful dialogue with Serb citizens domestically.

Its opposition to the dialogue process, unconventional tactics and general antipathy toward foreign intervention in Kosovo has often meant strained relations between VV and the international community. 

During the height of its disruptive protests, embassies of many of Kosovo’s key allies such as the U.S. would not officially meet with VV leaders, and ambassadors regularly used direct and strong condemnation of VV’s actions, which they considered to be against “democratic values.” 

However, these relationships have thawed in recent years as VV has subtly shifted to presenting a more moderate image and tried to show that it is a serious political force that can be trusted with the responsibilities of power. 

The transformation has meant a dialing down of the strong nationalist bent that has always accompanied its “self-determination” message. Holding a referendum on unification with Albania has long been a stated aim, while the party has famously rejected Kosovo’s state symbols such as anthem and flag.

VV has been one of the only political parties in Kosovo to present potential voters with a broadly consistent manifesto — published commitments with a generally progressive socialist approach.

While unification may remain an aspirational idea, this has been grounded in concrete policy proposals of increasing harmonization between the two states on issues relating to energy, education and customs controls. And while the Albanian national flag and colors remain synonymous with the party, Kurti has also accepted that as prime minister his approach would necessarily be different to Kosovo’s state symbols than it has been as an activist and opposition leader.

VV has also been one of the only political parties in Kosovo to present potential voters with a clear and broadly consistent manifesto as well as policy priorities — published commitments with a generally progressive socialist approach. Much of its rhetoric has focused on the popular messages of anti-corruption, strengthening the rule of law and economic development, but it has also put forward a left wing vision of enhancing social welfare, strengthening workers rights, reforming education and health care, and greater environmental protection.

It is likely no coincidence that such efforts to raise the standard of political commitments beyond vague and fanciful promises have coincided with the party’s rapid rise at the ballot box. 

In 2013, its candidate Shpend Ahmeti made a major symbolic breakthrough by winning the race to become mayor of Prishtina, ending 13 years of LDK dominance in the capital, by running on  a program of tangible reform: ending out of control illegal construction in the capital, re-connecting the public heating system, ensuring 24/7 water across the city, overhauling the public transportation infrastructure, and providing daily kifle and milk to elementary school children.  

On a national level, it only contested parliamentary elections for the first time in 2010, when it secured 14 deputies, and four years later it saw a modest increase of just two more deputies. 

But it was four years later, in 2017, when VV really announced itself as an electoral force to be reckoned with on the national scale. In the general elections that year, VV became the biggest single party in the Assembly, winning in areas such as Ferizaj, Kaçanik and Fushë Kosovë that had previously been strongholds for their rivals. 

In the mayoral elections that followed later that year, Ahmeti retained his Prishtina post, while the party also picked up two further mayoral positions, in Kosovo’s “second city” of Prizren as well as Kamenica.

The party’s continued rise at the ballot box this time around is perhaps all the more remarkable given that the post-2017 elections period has been dominated by internal turbulence. The chronic split in the party at the start of 2018, which saw many leading figures and activists — including Ahmeti — leave the party to form the Social Democratic Party (PSD), threatened to suck the momentum out of VV’s spectacular rise, as both factions seemed more focused on pursuing personal vendettas than opposing the government.

But even that distraction appears to have done little to dissuade voters that the time has come to give the former political outsiders a chance to practice what they preached.

Limited bounceback for LDK

While VV celebrate their apparent victory, it appears to be a case of so-near-yet-so-far for LDK. 

The fact that the party is once again challenging at the top of the polls is in many ways a remarkable turnaround in fortunes for the party, which just two years ago was left licking its wounds after enduring a torrid time at the ballot box.

In the 2017 parliamentary elections, LDK went from being one of the two biggest parties to third place, despite having formed a pre-election coalition with the New Kosovo Alliance (AKR). Its disappointing showing was largely seen as punishment from its electorate after it abandoned an anti-PDK pledge in 2014 and joined its long-time arch rival in coalition government. 

No longer even the biggest opposition party two years ago, there was much speculation about the future of a party that had been at the forefront of Kosovo’s politics since the early 1990s, when — under the leadership of Ibrahim Rugova, who is revered within the party to this day — it led the peaceful resistance against Milošević’s regime.

LDK managed to somewhat amend its profile this time around by putting forth Vjosa Osmani as prime ministerial candidate.

A stronger showing in the local elections later in 2017 seemed to allay some of those fears, as LDK won four mayorships in the first round of voting while topping the polls nationwide, but it went on to win just four further municipalities in the 10 runoffs it competed, including narrowly missing out in the capital, Prishtina. 

LDK managed to somewhat amend its profile this time around by putting forth Vjosa Osmani as prime ministerial candidate. The choice of Osmani partly aimed to send a message that it was opening ways to younger party members to attain leadership positions, as LDK has often faced criticism of failing to reform due to a strong grip on the party by traditional factions. 

But it also appeared to represent a shrewd choice by tapping into Osmani’s genuine popularity amongst voters; in the 2017 elections she secured more than 60,000 votes, the second highest amongst anyone in her party, behind only prime ministerial candidate Avdullah Hoti, despite the party leadership placing her at number 81 on their candidate list. 

Osmani became a party notable by often refusing to tow the party line, somewhat of an anomaly in Kosovar politics. She was one of the few LDK politicians to vocally contest its 2014 coalition with PDK, by entering a public row with party leader, Isa Mustafa, and she boycotted the Assembly during the vote to elect PDK’s Thaçi as president, part of the LDK-PDK coalition agreement.

Her actions meant Osmani was one of the few LDK politicians to emerge from the PDK coalition with her reputation somewhat intact, if not enhanced. 

But throughout this year’s election campaign, questions followed her as to whether she would genuinely be able to lead in her own image and how influential the traditional leadership behind the scenes would prove to be. They are questions that will remain as the coalition negotiations now begin. 

Down and (for some) out

For Kosovo’s other political parties, a chastening election result means that a period of introspection and reflection must now surely follow. 

Top of the list is PDK, which appears to have been forced into opposition after more than a decade in power. Recent election results have indicated that its support has been wavering, and in 2017, it only came out on top after entering a big pre-election coalition with the other “war parties” led by former Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) commanders, the Alliance for the Future of Kosovo (AAK) and NISMA. Even then, some post-election wheeler-dealing was required to prise AKR away from its pre-election pact with LDK and into coalition government.

PDK will continue to have considerable influence in Kosovo. It has spent its time in power inserting party loyalists into key positions throughout institutions and public boards.

Party leader Kadri Veseli’s attempts to convince voters that PDK is a changed outfit under his leadership, by having a high profile anti-corruption drive and adding new, young faces to its list of deputy candidates, appears to have done little to convince voters that he offers the answers to the myriad of issues that continue to face the country.

PDK will continue to have considerable influence in Kosovo. It has spent its time in power inserting party loyalists into key positions throughout institutions and public boards, and in power it has long worked closely with international partners, apparently convincing them that it offers the stability that they crave. 

For now though, the party will have to regroup and decide where it goes from here. 

The same goes for former Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj’s AAK. These extraordinary elections were brought about by Haradinaj’s resignation after he was called for questioning by Kosovo Specialist Chambers in relation to allegations of war crimes during his time as a KLA commander — in an emotional resignation speech, he said that he did not want the state of Kosovo to be in the dock.

But despite his reasoning, he ran in these elections as a prime ministerial candidate, doubling down on his defiant message of retaining the 100% tax his government imposed on Serbian products that has infuriated much of the international community. If he hoped that such circumstances would sweep him back into the premiership on the back of a wave of popular support, the gamble seems to have failed.

PSD will cling to the fact that its coalition with AAK will likely see it secure at least some deputies.

PSD, who joined AAK in an unlikely pre-election coalition as polling indicated it was set to miss the 5% threshold to secure deputies, must be looking at VV’s electoral success and wondering what might have been. 

In Prishtina, governed by party leader Shpend Ahmeti (who won re-election in 2017 while still part of VV), the AAK-PSD coalition is in fourth place, with just over 7% of the vote share; in the other municipality it heads, Kamenicë, it is in third with 15%. With VV winning in both municipalities, it raises questions over where the voter base will be for the fledgling breakaway party.

PSD will cling to the fact that its coalition with AAK will likely see it secure at least some deputies. NISMA and AKR look set to narrowly miss out on the Assembly altogether by missing the threshold. 

Both parties have held important roles in past coalition governments, but both have relied on narrow electorates in limited geographic areas, and they have failed to offer a vision that attracts voters from other areas in sufficient numbers to be a relevant force. 

There will be plenty of time for the inquests to take place. For VV and LDK, the serious business of forming a government is just getting started. K

Feature image: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.