Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Kosovo: Election Marred by Political Killing

Members of an opposition party are suspected of involvement in a post-ballot assassination.
By Arben Qirezi

Though the Kosovo's local elections on October 26 have widely been judged as the protectorate's most successful ballot since the international community took control, the murder of the Uke Bytyqi struck a jarring note.

A senior official in Ibrahim Rugova's Democratic League of Kosovo, LDK, and head of the Suhareka (Suva Reka) local council, he was killed one day after his party won an absolute majority in the district.

Apart from that, the 54-per-cent turnout in the election was widely seen as a triumph. Expressing the relief felt by many international officials, Pascal Fieschi, head of the OSCE mission in Kosovo, said the elections "achieved European standards".

Rugova's LDK lost three municipalities to Hashim Thaci's Democratic Party of Kosovo, PDK, and the Alliance for the Future of Kosovo, AAK, namely Lipjan (Lipljan), Decan (Decani) and Malishevo. The LDK's control over towns such as Prizren, Peja (Pec), Gjakova (Djakovica) and Klina was also threatened. The party retained a majority in the capital, Pristina, and in regional centres such as Gjilan (Gnjilane), Mitrovica and Ferizaj (Urosevac).

Overall, the LDK retained power in 16 of the protectorate's 30 municipalities. Serbian candidates won in the majority Serb municipalities of Leposavic, Zubin Potok, Zvecani and Strpce. However, their representation will be insignificant in the rest of the municipalities, where Serbs boycotted the poll in accordance with Belgrade's wishes.

Police from UNMIK arrested two suspects, Jetullah and Mentor Kryeziu, militants from the PDK stronghold of Leshan, for the murder of Bytyqi. Officials told IWPR that the politician was killed after an LDK convoy, carrying party activists and supporters celebrating their local election victory, crossed a road through Leshan.

A group of PDK militants stopped the convoy and opened fire when the LDK activists refused to remove their party flags from their vehicles. Bytyqi and his two bodyguards, Bajram and Bafti Bytyqi, were killed.

Rugova, who is president of Kosovo as well as LDK party leader, described the attack as a politically motivated assassination and urged UNMIK police and international troops in KFOR "to take all legal measures to arrest the perpetrators".

Speaking in a televised address, Rugova recalled other assassinations of LDK officials over the past three years and declared the day of Bytyqi's funeral last Tuesday would be a day of mourning.

A PDK senior official, Fatmir Limaj, condemned the assassination but asked Kosovars "not to politicise the incident". His words were unlikely to allay public concern over the militancy of some PDK members. These hardliners despise Rugova for taking a "soft" line during the 1998-99 conflict in Kosovo.

UNMIK police spokesperson Derek Chappel said Bytyqi's murder was a demonstration of rage over the election results, indicating that he believed the motive behind the killing was purely political.

But they have excluded the existence of an organised plot against Bytyqi, and said they had gathered sufficient evidence against both arrested suspects, with an UNMIK investigating judge extending their pre-trial detention to 30 days.

The murder of Bytyqi appears to have been an isolated case. The PDK's solid electoral performance, which brought it a significant increase in support, resulted from its campaign in support of civilian rule and coexistence between different political forces. Any concerted attempt to undermine this image would backfire and result in a loss of public support, which is what happened to the PDK in the last municipal elections in 2000.

After the 1999 conflict with Serbia, a provisional government took control of Kosovo under the current PDK leader Hashim Thaci. But the party's militant rhetoric, targeting politicians not directly linked to the KLA, alienated the public.

The PDK lost both subsequent elections, including the latest poll last November. After that it changed its image, and now promotes tolerance and coexistence between the different political groups.

Bytyqi's murder by a PDK militant raises the question of the party leadership's sincerity in advocating coexistence. The violent leanings of some party members suggests the party has failed to address extremism in its ranks. At best, it has been ambiguous about such extremism, often turning a blind eye to the systematic targeting of LDK activists.

The wave of post-election violence against its officials has traumatised the LDK. One party official told IWPR that intimidation was preventing members from taking office and was responsible for a decrease in LDK activism.

Shortly after the 2000 municipal elections, the LDK's campaign chief and Rugova's closest associate, Xhemail Mustafa, was assassinated at the doorway of his apartment. A few months later, Ismet Rraci, head of Klina municipal council and head of the local LDK branch, was murdered on his way to work while walking down the staircase of his flat.

After last year's parliamentary elections, Smajl Hajdaraj, a senior LDK official and member of the Kosovo assembly was assassinated in his apartment building. UNMIK police have not solved any of these murders but it is widely believed that they are a part of organised campaign to terrorise the LDK membership.

The latest murder is likely to heighten political tensions. At Bytyqi's funeral in the village of Semetisht, a vast crowd of about 100,000 heard stirring speeches from LDK officials, including Rugova. One speaker claimed the murder was the work of those who "kill in the night and weep during the day," a remark which appeared to be directed against the PDK.

The murder only highlights the difficulties encountered in Kosovo's slow and painful transition to democracy. The voters have shown their overwhelming support for this process. Now it needs firm backing through the steadfast imposition of the rule of law, which is the duty of the international community.

Arben Qirezi is a political analyst and a regular IWPR contributor