Pristina (AFP) -
A left-wing reformist party was poised Sunday to win Kosovo's early parliamentary elections, exit polls showed, following a fiery campaign that tapped into fatigue and frustration with the political establishment.
Polls by four major TV channels projected the anti-establishment Vetevendosje (Self-determination) party, a long-time critic of local elites, 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 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.
While official results were still being tallied, Vetevendosje supporters honked horns from their cars in downtown Pristina while a crowd gathered in the main square in celebration.
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 far behind with between 15 and 20 percent of the vote each, according to the exit polls. Full results are not expected until Tuesday.
- 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 against local elites and international influence in Kosovo, which was a UN-protectorate after the war.
It joined electoral politics in 2011 and in recent years has tamped down its more radical antics.
Led by 45-year-old former political prisoner Albin Kurti, the party focused its campaign on an anti-corruption platform, accusing past leaders of squandering Kosovo's first years of independence through graft and mismanagement.
Since splitting off from Serbia over a decade ago, Kosovo has mostly been run by the former commanders who led the late 1990s rebellion of ethnic Albanian guerrillas against Serb forces.
If they were once feted as independence heroes, the 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.
The former rebels were also weakened this year by the absence of top leaders, including ex-president Hashim Thaci, who were detained in November by a court in The Hague on war crimes charges dating back to the 1998-99 rebellion against Serbia.
- New generation -
Vetevendosje also finished first in the last 2019 election, but it only lasted some 50 days in power before its coalition crumbled.
If the projections hold, they now have 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 stronger showing has been attributed in part to Kurti's new alliance with popular acting President Vjosa Osmani, 38, who recently left the LDK to back him, becoming a charismatic duo on the campaign trail.
'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, also a leader in the fight for gender equality, 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, he would 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.