The party of incumbent Prime Minister Hashim Thaci has been named the preliminary winner of the December 12 parliamentary vote in Kosovo -- the first general election there since the territory's ethnic Albanian leaders declared independence from Serbia nearly three years ago.
Kosovo’s electoral commission said Thaci’s Democratic Party Of Kosovo (PDK) won with 33.5 percent of the total vote, while its main rival and former coalition partner, the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK) took 23.6 percent of the vote.
Both the PDK and LDK say they back the reforms needed for eventual European Union and NATO membership for Kosovo.
A new radical nationalist party, Vetevendosje – or Self-Determination -- is in third place.
Votes from 23 polling stations are still being counted.
Valdete Daka, the head of the Central Election Commission, said the elections were “very successful.” She said it is now up to the Election Complaints and Appeals Panel (ECAP) has to determine whether there were irregularities. She had earlier said that there had been "technical hitches" in the voting.Early Celebrations
Thaci didn’t wait for the commission to announce the results. He claimed victory late on December 12, telling a party rally in Pristina that his Democratic Party Of Kosovo (PDK) had won a "major victory" for "democratic and Euro-Atlantic values."
"We should avoid divisions, we should work together," Thaci said. "Only then will Kosovo win, as it won tonight."
He made the speech after an exit poll put his party in the lead, with 31 percent. The German news agency DPA quoted him as calling the vote “a referendum of citizens on our good governing.”
If the preliminary results are confirmed, Thaci will need support from other parties to form a government.
Following Thaci’s claim of victory on December 12, RFE/RL’s Balkan Service says the streets of Pristina filled up with rival PDK and LDK supporters waving flags and honking horns. But there were no reports of violence, with police keeping the two sides apart.
Isa Mustafa, head of the Democratic League of Kosovo, has yet to concede defeat.
Tensions later eased as LDK leader Isa Mustafa, who is also the mayor of Pristina, called for calm while the votes were being counted.
In a televised appearance, Mustafa declined to concede.
"Only [final] results will be valid, so we don't need to make any assumptions about the results," he said. "For us only the Central Election Commission's results are valid and there is no need for any celebrations in the streets of Pristina, as it will impact the work of the CEC. We should be calm and keep things in order so we can continue our work."
Mustafa has yet to make an announcement regarding his next step following the release of the official results.International Praise, Lingering Questions
In its initial reaction, the European Union hailed the mostly peaceful conduct of the poll but urged authorities in Pristina to follow up on any complaints.
The Central Election Commission said the overall turnout was around 48 percent, compared to 40 percent at the last elections in 2007.
In a joint statement, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and EU enlargement commissioner Stefan Fuele said they were pleased that the "majority" of voting in Kosovo took place in a “calm and orderly manner."
Ashton and Fuele also urged authorities to “certify the results and to deal with complaints and appeals."
The European Union had urged Kosovo authorities to ensure a free and fair vote, saying this is a key condition for productive future ties with the bloc.
Election officials carry ballot boxes from Kosovo's first parliamentary elections since independence.
Meanwhile, the head of the European Parliament's observation team praised "increased participation" among ethnic Serbs living in Kosovo enclaves and a "generally well organized" election day.
But Doris Pack, the head of the observation team, told reporters in Pristina that there were also some "serious" allegations of fraud.
Turnout in two areas known as Thaci strongholds was almost double the national average -- "statistically impossible," his LDK rivals said.
"Allegations of fraud in two municipalities have been brought to [our] attention," said Pack. "Therefore, the delegation encouraged political parties to follow proper legal procedures. Identified perpetrators should be prosecuted promptly in line with the law in order to curtail the culture of impunity."
In Washington, U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner called the vote a “significant milestone” in Kosovo’s democratic development, and congratulated electoral authorities for their quick organization of the vote.
He said the country now must complete a fair vote count.
"Kosovo now faces a test as the votes are counted," he said. "Kosovo's institutions must demonstrate to the public that they are prepared to defend the integrity of the vote and we call on Kosovo's authorities to take the required actions to address irregularities, process complaints, and appeals fairly, as well as ensure that the final results of Kosovo's elections accurately reflect the voters' intent."
A statement from the U.S. Embassy in Kosovo said Ambassador Christopher Dell observed a vote count at a polling station in Skenderaj where the number of ballots in the box exceeded the number of signatures in the voters’ book. The Serb Factor
Around 1.6 million voters were eligible to choose from 1,265 candidates representing 29 parties.
The candidates were vying for 120 parliament seats, 20 of which are reserved for ethnic minorities, including 10 that have been guaranteed to ethnic Serbian candidates.
The international community has watched the vote closely to see whether the Serbian minority integrates into political life.
Posters in the Serb-controlled part of the ethnically divided Kosovo town of Mitrovica called for a boycott of the weekend's elections.
As in past elections, Belgrade, which still considers the territory its southern province, called on the 120,000-strong ethnic Serbian minority in Kosovo not to vote. In past elections turnout among ethnic Serbs was around two percent.
This time, turnout among Serbs living in enclaves in central Kosovo was reportedly higher than in previous elections.
However, turnout among Serbs living in the north remained very low despite the establishment of mobile polling stations there.
The U.S. State Department’s Toner decried what he called “the atmosphere of threats, intimidation, and violence from Serbian sources directed for weeks against Kosovo Serbs in northern Kosovo,” which he said had “clearly prevented many [people] there from exercising their democratic rights."
The snap election was called after parliament overwhelmingly backed a no-confidence motion last month, which brought down the government that led the country to independence from Serbia in February 2008.
Fighting corruption and an unemployment rate of nearly 50 percent have been the main issues for voters during the election campaign.
In the almost three years since then, Kosovo has struggled to establish itself as an independent country.
So far some 70 countries, including the United States and most EU members, have recognized Kosovo as an independent country. Serbia's ally Russia has been among the countries opposing the territory's membership as an independent state in the United Nations.
In September, Serbia backed a UN resolution paving the way for dialogue with Kosovo, even as the government maintains it will never recognize its former province as a sovereign state.
The start of that dialogue has been delayed due to Kosovo’s political crisis.
written by Antoine Blua and Richard Solash, with contributions from RFE/RL's Balkan Service and agency reports