PRISTINA -- Vetevendosje, led by former student protest leader Albin Kurti, and the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK) -- appear to have upended the ruling party, in power for 12 years, in snap parliamentary elections.
With 98 percent of the ballots counted as of midday on October 7, results from the Central Election Commission showed the leftist-nationalist Vetevendosje party garnered 25.6 percent of the vote, followed by center-right LDK with 24.9 percent.
The former ruling party, the Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK), which has dominated politics for more than a decade, placed third, winning 21.1 percent of the vote, while the coalition of outgoing Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj's Alliance for the Future of Kosovo won just 11.5 percent.
Kurti on October 7 promised major change, and pledged to work quickly to try and form a coalition government with LDK.
"We will contact the LDK to bring about this change. When the opposition becomes the government, that is when the changes will come. Our victory just started the changes," Kurti said in Pristina.
Members of Vetevendosje celebrated in the capital, Pristina, as party leader Kurti declared “a new chapter” for Kosovo has opened, and he pledged to work quickly to try to form a coalition government with LDK.
“Because there was courage yesterday, there is hope,” Kurti said in a post on Facebook on October 7.
“Your votes have given the opposition a convincing victory. Change has happened, the people have decided that this change will be led by Vetevendosje!” he added.
The LDK's prime minister candidate, Vjosa Osmani, said she believed the parties would "sit down and talk about a coalition."
Ten of the 120 parliamentary seats are reserved for ethnic Serbs and another 10 are set aside for other minorities, including ethnic Turks and Roma.
The elections took place after a campaign that was dominated by issues of corruption, high unemployment, and a possible peace deal with Serbia that would clear the way for Kosovo's membership in the United Nations.
Kosovo has Europe’s youngest population with an average age of 29, and economic growth has averaged 4 percent over the past decade. But it remains very poor -- unemployment is 25 percent -- and more than 200,000 Kosovars have left and applied for asylum in the European Union since Pristina won its independence.
“Vetevendosje will face a big challenge as party of government,” said James Ker-Lindsay, visiting professor at the London School of Economics.
However, he said the party will have to rebuild its image after stunts, such as setting off tear gas in parliament last year to prevent the ratification of a border agreement with neighboring Montenegro.
“They’ve reveled in being the enfant terrible of Kosovo politics, but at a cost. Their antics in parliament last year were reported globally. Told by diplomats it set back recognition efforts,” Ker-Lindsay added in a tweet.
WATCH: Opposition Party Supporters Celebrate Election Success In Kosovo
Kurti appeared to acknowledge the tough political and economic climate in Kosovo, saying that if he becomes prime minister, he plans to improve the country in five key areas: economic development, education, health and social issues, and the rule of law.
“Citizens spoke with their vote. They intervened en masse on the political scene so that the drama of Kosovo won’t have a tragic end,” he said.
“We have to work. But again, with citizens, never behind them. Together, always,” he added.
The official outcome of the vote is expected on October 7. The turnout was 44 percent, a slight improvement on the previous election two years ago.
Some 1.9 million people were eligible to vote. They took part in electing 120 lawmakers in what was Kosovo's fourth parliamentary vote since it declared independence from Serbia in 2008.
The election was triggered by the resignation of then-Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj in July after war crimes prosecutors at The Hague summoned him for questioning over his wartime role as a commander of the Kosovo Liberation Army (UCK).
Public dissatisfaction with the record of Haradinaj's three-party governing coalition had boosted the chances of opposition parties, with the center-right LDK and the nationalist, left-leaning Vetevendosje vying for first place.
Haradinaj’s Alliance for the Future of Kosovo finished fourth in the voting with 11.6 percent.
The Serbian community in Kosovo was represented in the election by four political entities -- the Kosovo Serb Party from Leposavic, the Gracanica-based Freedom Coalition, the Independent Liberal Party, also from Gracanica, and the Serb List based in North Mitrovica.
The total number of voters in 10 Serb-majority municipalities is over 117,000, while 50 candidates are competing for the 10 seats reserved for ethnic Serbs.
Candidates from the Serb List voted together at a polling station in North Mitrovica immediately after the polling station opened. With them were workers of institutions funded by the Republic of Serbia. Based on a Central Election Committee decision, voting is only allowed with Kosovar documents.
Kosovo’s independence has been recognized by more than 110 states but not by others, including five EU members, as well as Serbia, Russia, and China. Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic announced during last month's UN General Assembly that he was "working on new withdrawals of recognition" from some UN states.
European Union-sponsored talks aimed at normalizing ties between the two countries stalled last year over Kosovo's decision to impose a 100 percent tax on goods from Serbia.
Meanwhile, the nominee to become the next EU foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, said that his first foreign trip, if confirmed for the position, will be to Kosovo.
Speaking during his hearing in the European Parliament's foreign affairs committee in Brussels, Borrell, the current Spanish foreign minister, said, "We have to make an agreement between Serbia and Kosovo and it will be my priority," adding, "I believe that if we as Europeans are not able to solve this problem in our immediate vicinity, it's very hard to believe that we are going to be a geopolitical power."
Borrell's nomination triggered alarm bells in Pristina as Spain is one of five EU member states that still don’t recognize Kosovo's independence.
During the hearing, Borrell downplayed Spain’s position on the issue, saying that "the important thing in the end is not what Spain is doing because, as [long] as China, India, and Russia will not recognize Kosovo, Kosovo will not be a state."
The EU sent a 61-member team of observers for the election to show that Pristina "remains a political priority."
The EU regards Kosovo as at a crossroads, but Brussels' leverage is limited amid an ongoing Brexit debate, some members' reluctance to recognize Kosovo, and little prospect of early entry for aspiring members.