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Kosovo: The 'Independence' Poll

The issue of independence is expected to dominate campaigning for forthcoming Kosovo elections.
By Shkëlzen Maliqi

The campaigning for Kosovo's general election, due to be held November 17, kicks off this week, with little separating the main contenders. All want their province to become a sovereign state. The only real question facing voters is who they should choose to lead the way.


Unlike the atmosphere of violence which marred last year's local election, political parties, especially the more militant ones, have taken on a more liberal, progressive appearance - realising that they have a higher chance of winning power as determined democrats.


Although Ibrahim Rugova's Democratic Alliance, LDK, is expected to emerge the winner, it seems likely that it will be forced into forming a coalition in order to gain a majority.


The man who once enjoyed near total support in Kosovo during the Nineties when he led passive resistance to Milosevic now has the backing of just half of Kosovo's Albanians.


But Rugova's rivals, Hashim Thaqi and Ramush Haradinaj, believe his time is past and that his mild, compromising manner will stall, even prevent Kosovo's independence.


A lot of support has shifted to the parties who were formed out of the Kosovo Liberation Army, KLA: Thaqi's Democratic Party of Kosovo, PDK, and Haradinaj's Alliance for the Future of Kosovo, AAK. Poll put their support at 30 and 10 per cent, respectively. What both are counting on is the continued slow erosion of Rugova's influence and popularity.


The LDK, meanwhile, is likely to stress that it was Rugova's prolonged time in opposition which helped promote the Kosovan question on the international arena. His charisma and experience, supporters believe, is a better foundation for pursuing independence that the likes of Thaci and Haradinaj whom they see as nervous, inexperienced and violent.


But Thaqi and Haradinaj, both notorious KLA commanders, are taking care to refine their image and establish themselves as worthy political contenders rather than appearing as the "militant" option.


Besides criticising Rugova for his tendency to compromise, the PDK has pointed out repeatedly that he has failed to build up a Kosovar Albanian platform for self-rule since the end of the 1999 conflict.


As part of its makeover, AAK has been trying to reform its image as a left-wing coalition of militants and radicals. Several hard-line groups have now left the alliance in protest.


The coalition has sought to woo liberal parties and has even recruited Mahmut Bakali to their side. A former communist leader who has been out of politics for two decades, he is also a revered intellectual and his support will bring with it a significant number of voters.


Both Bakali and Haradinaj are suggesting that at such an historic point in Kosovo's history - when independence now seems a real prospect - an all-party coalition government should be set up rather than allowing all decisions over the future of the province to be taken by one party or grouping.


And it is the independence question which is casting doubts over the participation of around 170 000 Kosovo Serbs. Although more than half have registered to vote, it is unclear whether they will actually turn up at the poll. Since, by dint of demographics, the provincial parliament will be dominated by Kosovar Albanians pushing for their own state, Serb leaders believe that they will be legitimising the independence process by turning out on November 17.


The international community is trying to persuade Serbs to participate in the vote by arguing that this will enable them to have an influence over the fate of the province. Serbs have ten seats reserved for them in the Kosovan parliament. If they take part in the ballot, they could send up to 27 deputies to the assembly.


It seems that the elections will be held in far more favourable conditions than was the case during last October local elections which were overshadowed by violence. As Kosovan-Albanian parties strive to improve their image, there is less of a feeling of edgy rivalry between moderate and militant blocs, no more intimidation, threats and beatings.


Kosovo's political leaders seem to have realised that they need to be patient and work along with the limited powers which the election's victors will acquire. They have realised that the country will continue to be run by the UN High Representative through the UN mission in Kosovo and that, in the short term, the powers of the new assembly will be limited.


That said, there is an awareness that the elected authorities will be taking on an important role in negotiating the future status of Kosovo and consequently that the province needs an efficient administration and strong political team capable of conducting those negotiations.


Shkelzen Maliqi is an independent journalist from Pristina.


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