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

New Parties Seek to Lure Jaded Voters

For all the disillusionment with the old parties, newcomers may struggle to break through.
By Zana Limani

As the election campaign opened, a small donkey named Polly strolled down Pristina’s main Mother Theresa Street with a banner rapped up around it, reading, “Vote for me, I guarantee you independence.”

The donkey, presented as a mock independent candidate, at one point walked past an election poster of Kosovo’s biggest party, the Democratic League of Kosovo, LDK, whose logo runs Freedom, Independence, Democracy.

Krenar Gashi, 21, a founder of Levizja Movement, a youth movement advocating social change, said the point of this stunt was to get across the message that most politicians’ promises in the campaign are totally unserious.

“People are sick and tired of voting for empty promises from politicians who think they can run a campaign with only the independence issue on the agenda,” Gashi said.

His disappointment with local institutions is so deep he does not even feel it is worth voting.

Though frustration is high over the lack of achievements in Kosovo, few people really believe staying at home on election day offers an answer.

Florim Beqiri, 32, a bookseller, said he was going to vote, though he was deeply disillusioned with what the government had done over the past three years.

“Many politicians made promises based on people’s low expectations,” Beqiri said. “They use the fact that people are not well educated and are not aware of the rights and public services they should expect.”

Beqiri believes the roots of many institutional problems in the Kosovan society lie in corrupt party structures. “The parties have become a sort of business,” he added. “They only work for their own benefit.”

Few would deny that local institutions in Kosovo suffer from structural weaknesses and that this is reflected at the heart of government. Kosovo’s prime minister has little power over the 10 ministries of his coalition government, which are spread among five parties.

Eli Krasniqi, 25, a sociology student, says the pre-electoral campaign is an insult to voters. “They didn’t care about what was happening for three years, and then suddenly they start building and fixing roads, just before the election,” she said. “They are trying to pull the wool over our eyes.”

True to Krasniqi’s words, recent weeks have seen an explosion of activity on Kosovo’s roads, with potholed highways and broken pavements suddenly getting long-needed repairs. The recent fixture of the water supply in Pristina has been linked similarly to the desire of the parties running the local government to win votes.

But not everyone is complaining about this burst in pre-election spending. One theatre director told IWPR, “We never had an international theatre festival in Kosovo before, but suddenly the money was found to organise one - three weeks before the elections.”

“I only wish we had elections every year,” he added.

Bexhet Brajshori, minister of culture, from the LDK party, reminded audiences attending the festival that they should they be grateful to his party chief, as the event was organised “under the patronage of the President of Kosovo, Ibrahim Rugova”.

If the parties are trying ever more inventively to convince voters to go out and vote, this is partly because a report of the United Nations Development Programme, UNDP, in September, suggested voter turnout has been falling sharply.

While 79 per cent of the electorate voted in Kosovo’s first post-war election in 2000, the percentage fell to 64 per cent in 2001 and only 54 per cent in the last elections in 2002.

“Voter turnout has decreased steadily from the first elections, in part perhaps because people see no benefit to participating,” the UNDP report said.

Melihate Termkolli, head of the election centre of the LDK, which holds 48 of the 120 seats in parliament, is confident that popular disappointment will not translate into a loss of votes for the LDK.

“There has been progress in several areas and we have done everything in our power to improve the situation,” he said. “People know that – our support has grown.”

Independence remains the core issue for the LDK, on which it has based all its campaigns since 1989, when the party emerged to articulate ethnic Albanian opposition to the Serbian regime of Slobodan Milosevic.

However, independence and state-building is on the agenda of almost all other 31 parties competing for seats in the elections, even if it is becoming harder to convince Kosovars that independence offers the solution to all their problems.

“I’m tired of the way they always promise big things like independence,” Eli Krasniqi said. “If independence means no power, no drinking water, no jobs - that is not the sort of independence I want.”

Nita Luci, 27, an anthropologist, said the ruling parties do not address social issues like gender equality, or health problems, such as the increase in cases of sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancy.

“Even new parties like ORA, [led by the well-known publicist Veton Surroi] which are promising to reform the health system, do not set out what these reforms are, or how will they make them happen,” she said.

However, ORA electoral candidate Labinot Salihu maintains that this new party is more in tune with citizens’ real needs than most others.

“Many of us in ORA have been civic activists for a long time and are in touch with citizens’ everyday social troubles,” Salihu said. “We will not engage with citizens only during election times, or when we need something from them.”

For all these fine words, new parties like ORA face a formidable challenge in convincing the voters to change old voting habits and abandon the more traditional parties, such as the LDK, the Democratic Party of Kosovo, PDK and the Alliance for the Future of Kosovo, AAK.

Speaking probably for many, Fetije Krasniqi, 20, a student of Albanian language and literature, said, “It is difficult for many people to trust the politicians they know so well, and even harder to trust the ones who have just entered politics.”

Zana Limani is a regular IWPR contributor.