Kosovans Vote In Droves

Last minute hitches fail to dampen Kosovo voters' enthusiasm

Kosovans Vote In Droves

Last minute hitches fail to dampen Kosovo voters' enthusiasm

Tuesday, 6 September, 2005

Early on Saturday morning, Mentor, a 15-year-old student, took over the running of his family's grocery shop in central Pristina. "My parents left me here to go and vote today," he said proudly, "It's the same with all the stores in the neighbourhood."

Dressed in their best clothes, Pristina's residents lined up patiently in long queues outside the polling stations across the city to vote in the first free elections in Kosovo's history.

"We came out very early to fulfil our duty as citizens," said Driton, a 31-year-old salesman, who had come with his wife to vote at the "Faik Konica" high school in central Pristina.

Voter turnout was extremely high - close to 85 per cent - which Daan Everts, the head of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, OSCE, described as a testament to the success of his organisation's election process.

OSCE Director of Elections Operations Jeff Fischer said that the unexpectedly high turnout in the early hours created some administrative problems. The entranceways to a few polling stations, especially in Drenica, central Kosovo, became clogged with confused voters.

But once inside the polling stations, the procedure was well-organised. "I waited for an hour outside but when I came inside it was over very quick," said Driton.

"I'm just happy that I am voting in my free homeland. It feels so good," he said, expressing an excitement that could be felt throughout the province.

Earlier in the week, Kosovo's largest daily Koha Ditore quoted sources from inside the OSCE as saying there had been terrible mistakes made in the registration process and the elections would turn into a catastrophe.

While there were cases where names could not be found, most problems were eventually sorted out.

When Blerim Raci, a local teacher in Pristina, turned up to vote his registration could not be found. "They put me in another room while they searched the data base," he said. Eventually his name was located and he voted.

Even the wife of the moderate Democratic League of Kosovo leader Ibrahim Rugova could not find her name in the list.

The largest complaint about the process was the insufficient number of polling stations, which resulted in huge crowds forming at some centres. The Technical High School in Pristina attracted such numbers polling continued past the 7pm deadline set by the OSCE.

OSCE officials broadcast assurances over the radio that everyone queuing to vote would get their turn, but there were a few polling stations in Pristina which shut down at 7pm sending away some voters who had been waiting for hours.

Albanian flags were flying over polling station doorways despite the OSCE's earlier decision to ban any national symbols. The organisation reversed the decision at the last minute following warnings from Albanian leaders the move could provoke unnecessary violence and a decision be K-For not to intervene to remove the flags.

"I don't want misunderstandings. I don't want people to think that this means we are taking sides," said Everts. "But I also understand that this is an important and historic event, and symbolic things should have their place during historic events."

Albanians welcomed the decision, although some said it didn't matter which flag was flying so long as it wasn't Yugoslav.

"The elections are more important than the presence of the flag," said voter Vesel Fejzullahu. "We don't see a Yugoslav flag - that's also important."

The public viewed the municipal elections as a major step towards democracy and independence.

By the end of polling, Everts, and all the major political leaders, said Kosovo had passed its first test of democracy. Everts praised the "festive and celebratory" atmosphere which swept through Kosovo as voters cast their ballots.

Veton Surroi, the publisher of Koha Ditore and an independent political analyst, described the poll as the most successful election in the whole of the Balkans.

Bernard Kouchner, the emotional Frenchman at the helm of the United Nations mission, said the elections made him feel proud. "I congratulate your leaders for another political campaign without violence. Nobody would have believed it, but you did it," he said.

Kouchner and Everts spent election day travelling around Kosovo visiting polling stations in areas populated by non-Albanian minorities. The atmosphere, they said, was the same - "celebrative" and "festive".

The Turkish and Muslim minorities turned out in big numbers to vote. Only the Serb minority failed to take part - most didn't vote at all.

Agon Maliqi is a high school student in Pristina

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