PRISTINA, Kosovo (AP) — Kosovo’s voters defied freezing weather to vote in a 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 voters were eligible to chose 120 lawmakers among more than 1,000 candidates from 28 political groups. Some 100,000 Kosovars abroad were also eligible to vote by post. Those infected with coronavirus could vote through mobile polling teams.
Voters defied minus 10 degrees Celsius (14 Fahrenheit) temperature and snowfall to cast their ballots. Turnout at 3 p.m. was 32.3%, higher than the last four elections at that hour, according to the Central Election Commission.
A new Cabinet will face the challenge of bringing the poor country’s economy back on its feet and reducing unemployment after battling back the pandemic, as well as fighting organized crime and corruption.
Albin Kurti of the left-wing Self-Determination Movement party called on 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 democracy in which citizens say their word.”
Kurti and Hoti are the two main contenders for the post of prime minister, with pre-election polls favoring 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 polling stations Sunday. During the campaign, political parties often to respect many virus control measures, including limiting gatherings to no more than 50 people.
The election was scheduled after Kosovo’s Constitutional Court rendered invalid a vote by a convicted lawmaker who helped confirm Hoti’s Cabinet named in June after Kurti was removed as prime minister.
In Serb-dominated northern Kosovo, Belgrade asked Serbs to support the Serb List party. One voting commissioner in northern Mitrovica complained that Serbs were voting two or three times. Central Election Commission head Valdete Daka said prosecutors were investigating.
Kosovo's Serb minority has 10 seats in parliament and 10 other seats belong to other minorities.
The European Union sent monitors to watch 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 have recognized Kosovo, but Serbia and its allies Russia and China do not. Tensions over Kosovo remain a source of volatility in the Balkans.