Kosovo premier claims victory in first poll since independence

Kosovo's prime Minister, Hasim Thaci, claimed victory last night as exit polls put the ruling PDK in the lead in a historic parliamentary election, the first since the unilateral declaration of independence from Serbia in 2008.

The polls indicated that the PDK was ahead by six percentage points, gaining 31 per cent of the vote, with its coalition ally, the LDK, receiving 25 per cent. The results suggest that Mr Thaci will seek backing from marginal parties that have won supporters away from the coalition. Both leading parties support EU and Nato membership for Kosovo, continued privatisation of state enterprises and entering talks with neighbouring Serbia.

The early elections were called last month after the ruling coalition collapsed in September. The Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK) left the government after the Constitutional Court ruled that its leader, President Fatmir Sejdiu, could not simultaneously be President and leader of a political party, leaving the Democratic Party of Kosovo (DPK) without its coalition partner.

Analysts say the elections are the first test for Kosovo's young democracy, where promises of independence meant certain electoral victory in the recent past.

However, the hottest issues among the disillusioned population now are unprecedented poverty and unemployment among 1.6 million voters, along with prevailing corruption that reaches the top echelons of power, and rampant organised crime.

Valdete Daka, head of the Central Election Commission, said that he considered the voting process a "success", and that while there "have been technical hitches" they "have not hurt the process". Yet in the northern town of Mitrovica, ethnic Serbs boycotted the election, suggesting lingering tensions from Kosovo's breakaway from Serbia.

"These elections were organised by a state that does not exist for me and this is the reason why I don't vote," said Dragan Vukosavljevic, a Serb in Mitrovica.

Police made two arrests when a group of 40 Kosovo Serbs in the north of the country protested against the presence of mobile voting booths carried in by trucks.

In Gracanica, a village close to the capital, Pristina, a large number of Serbs turned up at voting stations and hung from the town hall the Serbian, European Union and United States flags, the latter a symbol of hate for Serbs in the past.

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