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Kosovo: Election Candidates Dodge Big Issue

Independence is at the back of campaigners' minds even if they are not discussing it openly.
By Arben Qirezi

Bread-and-butter issues rather than the big question of independence are dominating campaigning on the eve of Kosovo's municipal elections on October 26.

But the issue of separation from the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, FRY, remains in the background, with many contestants apparently focusing on the need for stronger local institutions to improve the likelihood of independence when talks on the protectorate's final status begin.

A recent poll by the public opinion research agency Index Kosova indicated a likely victory for Ibrahim Rugova's Democratic League of Kosovo, LDK, with 40.5 per cent of the vote - an 18 per cent drop from the last municipal elections two years ago.

The survey showed Hashim Thaci's Democratic Party of Kosovo, PDK, should come second with about 18 per cent - around ten per cent less than it enjoyed in 2000 - followed by the Alliance for the Future of Kosovo, AAK, with around six per cent - a drop of two per cent.

The poll showed no significant change in voters' preferences. However, the decrease in votes for all major parties suggests that voters - disillusioned by high unemployment, poverty and a drop in international aid - may not turn out in force on October 26.

At the last municipal elections in October 2000, LDK - then, as with all its rivals, campaigned on an independence platform - won the majority of municipalities with 58 per cent of the vote. But PDK and AAK could not convince the majority of Kosovars that their armed struggle against Serb rule deserved to be rewarded with votes.

In last November's parliamentary elections, parties again banged the independence drum. But the low turnout in that contest appeared to have convinced politicians that local problems have to be solved before nationalist ambitions can be addressed.

As a result, the Kosovo Liberation Army's armed struggle against Belgrade is hardly mentioned at the hustings. All the talk is about better local administrations delivering improved health, social welfare, better infrastructure, and education programmes while lowering taxes and defeating corruption.

The main rivals - LDK and PDK - are trying to convince voters they are the only ones able to provide the protectorate with sustainable local institutions which will eventually take over the functions now performed by the UN Interim Administrative Mission in Kosovo, UNMIK.

In a bid to boost their popularity, the candidates have been driven to perform undignified antics on television. On one show the LDK, PDK and AAK candidates for the capital Pristina were persuaded to sing popular songs, talk about their cooking abilities and wear dark glasses while outlining their vision for the city's future.

The LDK appears to be confident of victory and relies on the popularity of its president, Ibrahim Rugova, to campaign in a fairly orthodox fashion.

The PDK has adopted a more sentimental, western-style presentation in which its Pristina candidate, Fatmir Limaj, assures his daughter on television that he is a trusted member of society who cares deeply about the city he wants to represent.

While the PDK has maintained around 20 per cent voter support over the past two years, the LDK has been losing followers to the ranks of the undecided. The main struggle for the hearts and minds of those who choose to avoid political rallies is being conducted in TV debates run by the European Union and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, OSCE. The smaller parties have already used this platform to criticise municipal performance.

Participation by civic groups has also been higher than in previous campaigns, with disabled people's organisations lobbying for greater attention from local authorities.

Political parties and international bodies in Kosovo have all been calling for a high turnout. The importance of the polls lies in the fact that UNMIK is now gradually beginning to hand over certain responsibilities to the municipalities.

By the middle of next year, UNMIK is planning to withdraw those administrators who now have the power of veto over municipal decisions.

Further parliamentary elections are scheduled for 2004, by which time the transfer of UNMIK powers to central government will gradually be fixed in preparation for final talks on the protectorate's eventual status.

The current options would seem to be independence, a loose link with Belgrade, or partition of the country into ethnic Serb and Albanian areas. Those favouring sovereignty believe the best way to secure it is to build up effective democratic institutions and a strong economy.

Discussing a series of LDK development programmes in the protectorate, President Rugova said, "A successful local government will accelerate the formal recognition of independence."

Arben Qirezi is a political analyst and a regular IWPR contributor

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