PRISTINA, Kosovo (AP) — Kosovo’s voters defied freezing weather to take part in an early parliamentary election Sunday to form a new government amid the coronavirus pandemic, an economic downturn and stalled negotiations with wartime foe Serbia.
Some 1.8 million eligible voters on Sunday are expected to cast their ballots in 2,400 polling stations. They're electing 120 lawmakers among more than 1,000 candidates from 28 political groupings. Some 100,000 Kosovars abroad are also eligible to vote by post.
Those infected by the coronavirus will be able to vote through mobile polling teams.
Voters defied a -10 degrees C (14 F) temperature and snowfall to cast their ballot in the morning.
A new Cabinet will face the challenge of bringing the poor country’s economy back on its feet and reducing unemployment after the pandemic, as well as fighting organized crime and corruption.
Albin Kurti of the left-wing Self-Determination Movement party, or Vetevendosje!, called on the people to “exercise their right to vote.”
“A lot of challenges lie ahead. But we are hopeful that we are going to have high turnout and a great result for the democracy," Kurti told The Associated Press.
Acting Prime Minister Avdullah Hoti of the center-right Democratic League of Kosovo, LDK, expected “a regular electoral process in order to maintain the standards of election organization, of a democracy in which citizens say their word.”
Kurti and Hoti are the two main contenders for the post of prime minister. Pre-election polls and local analysts give an upper hand to Kurti.
Negotiations on normalizing ties with Serbia, which stalled again last year after talks brokered by the U.S. and the European Union, have not figured high on any party’s agenda.
Mask wearing and hand sanitizing was mandatory for voters entering the polling station Sunday. During the electoral campaign the political parties have failed to respect many of the virus control measures, including mandatory mask wearing, social distancing, limits on gatherings of no more than 50 people and an overnight curfew.
The election was scheduled after Kosovo’s Constitutional Court rendered invalid a vote by a convicted lawmaker that helped confirm Hoti’s Cabinet named in June after Kurti was removed as prime minister.
The Serb minority has 10 seats and 10 others belong to other minorities.
The EU has sent an Elections Expert Mission to Kosovo to monitor the vote.
Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008, a decade after a brutal 1998-1999 war between separatist ethnic Albanian rebels and Serb forces. The war ended in June 1999 after a 78-day NATO air campaign drove Serb troops out and a peacekeeping force moved in.
Most Western nations recognize the country, but Serbia and allies Russia and China do not, and tensions over Kosovo remain a source of volatility in the Balkans.