Pristina (AFP) -
A left-wing reformist party was poised Sunday to dominate Kosovo's early parliamentary elections, exit polls showed, following a fiery campaign that tapped into fatigue and frustration with the political establishment.
The snap poll came after a tumultuous year in which the coronavirus pandemic deepened social and economic crises in the former Serbian province, which declared independence 13 years ago.
Already home to one of Europe's poorest economies, Kosovo is now struggling through a pandemic-triggered downturn, with vaccinations yet to start for the population of 1.8 million.
The anti-establishment Vetevendosje (Self-determination) party, a long-time critic of local elites, appeared set to benefit from the hunger for change.
Polls by four major TV channels projected the party would take between 41 and 53 percent of the vote -- a share around twice as big as their showing in the last 2019 election.
The next two largest parties, the outgoing centrist Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK) and the Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK) -- a party of former rebels who have long dominated Kosovo -- were competing for between 15 and 20 percent, according to the exit polls.
- Tear gas in parliament -
Once known for provocative stunts such as unleashing tear gas in parliament, Vetevendosje was born as a street movement in the 2000s protesting local elites and international influence in Kosovo, which was a UN protectorate in the post-war era.
In recent years it has tamped down its more radical antics.
Led by 45-year-old former political prisoner Albin Kurti, the party focused this election's campaign on an anti-corruption platform, accusing past leaders of squandering Kosovo's first years of independence through graft and mismanagement.
For most of the past decade, Kosovo has been run by the former rebel commanders who led the late 1990s rebellion of ethnic Albanian guerrillas against Serb forces.
But if they were once feted as independence heroes, Kosovo's political elite have now become the face of the social and economic ills plaguing the population of 1.8 million, where average salaries are around 500 euros (around $600) a month and youth unemployment tops 50 percent.
'The people are waiting for change, they are waiting for the removal of that which has hindered us, such as corruption and nepotism,' Sadik Kelemendi, a doctor, told AFP before casting his ballot in the snow-covered capital Pristina.
- New generation -
After joining electoral politics in 2010, Vetevendosje has finished first in the last two elections.
But in both cases it was eventually outmanoeuvred by other parties who united to form majority coalitions.
After the last 2019 election, Kurti was prime minister for 50 days before his coalition crumbled.
The party's performance this year gives them a clear path to a ruling majority if they team up with minority parties, who are reserved 20 seats in the 120-member assembly, including half for the Serb community.
The strong showing was also attributed to Kurti's new alliance with popular acting President Vjosa Osmani, 38, who recently backed him after leaving the LDK.
'I think it is about time that Kosovo is led by not only a new generation of politicians in terms of age, but especially in terms of mindset,' Osmani told AFP ahead of the vote.
While Kurti himself did not run as an MP -- he is banned due to a 2018 court conviction for unleashing tear gas in parliament -- his party could still appoint him as their prime minister.
Known for a hardline stance on Serbia, if he becomes prime minister, Kurti will face heavy pressure from the West to reboot talks with Belgrade, which still denies Kosovo's statehood.
This lingering dispute is a source of major tension in the region more than 20 years after the war, and an obstacle for either side in its dreams of joining the European Union.