Citizens in Kosovo are casting votes in municipal elections as Prime Minister Albin Kurti seeks to capitalize on his February parliamentary victory by pushing his party to victory in key cities.
About a half million voters -- or slightly more than one-quarter of the eligible population -- had cast ballots by 3 p.m., the Central Election Commission reported on October 17.
Serb-majority municipalities had the highest turnout in the local elections with anywhere from one-third to more than half of eligible voters casting ballots.
Polls close at 7 p.m. local time, with preliminary results expected by midnight.
Kurti’s Vetevendosje (Self-Determination) movement scored a resounding victory in early parliamentary elections in February on promises to battle endemic corruption and take a tougher stance on peace talks with Serbia.
However, it faces a tougher challenge in municipal elections, where local personalities are often more influential than national parties. His party won only 3 municipal elections in 2017.
Voters will choose 38 mayors and more than 1,000 local officials representing municipalities. A total of 166 candidates are running for mayors, and 5,198 candidates are running for the 1,002 seats in the municipal assemblies.
Preliminary results are expected by midnight.
All eyes will be on the race for the mayor of Pristina, the nation’s capital and largest city. Kurti’s party tapped former Health Minister Arben Vitia, who stepped down just weeks before the election, as its candidate.
Municipal elections in big cities are dominated by such issues as investments in infrastructure and health care, access to clear water, beautification -- including creation of green spaces -- and addressing sewage problems.
The municipal elections come amid efforts to vaccinate the population against the coronavirus and after a series of incidents in Serb-dominated regions of northern Kosovo that captured the nation’s attention.
Polling stations opened at 7 a.m. with strict anti-COVID rules in place, including mandatory face masks and social-distancing. Some 3,400 police officers have been deployed to maintain law and order.
The elections are taking place after a spike in COVID-19 infections in recent weeks that prompted the Public Health Institute to recommend a postponement of the vote.
President Vjosa Osmani said earlier this week that the elections will go ahead as planned after the leaders of Kosovo’s political parties failed to agree on a new date.
“Despite the recommendation, the prevailing opinion was that the election process should not be postponed," Osmani said. "I respect the right of the parties.”
Election teams are taking ballot boxes to the homes of people who are currently positive for the virus.
The elections are also taking place amid rising tensions in the nation’s northern regions that border Serbia.
Earlier this month, ethnic Serb villagers in northern Kosovo blocked roads and clashed with police after Kosovar authorities conducted sweeps aimed at cracking down on cross-border smuggling.
The October 13 violence injured at least 20 people, including police officers, and renewed fears of wider violence and tension between Kosovo and Serbia. It also prompted a new warning from the European Union.
Serbia and Kosovo fought a war in 1998-99 that ended when NATO bombed Serbian forces.
Kosovo declared its independence from Belgrade in 2008, resulting in some ethnic Serb villages becoming part of the new nation. Serbia has refused to recognize its former province as a sovereign nation.
Kurti, who won office pledging a tougher stance on peace talks with Belgrade, promised officials would continue cracking down on the smuggling of goods -- such as beverages, food, and cigarettes -- from Serbia into Kosovo.
The violence came just weeks after the resolution of another dispute between Kosovo and Serbia over license-plate requirements that were imposed by Kosovo.
Ethnic Serbs living in Kosovo balked at the new rules and blocked parts of the border. At one point, Serbia sent fighter jets and helicopters flying along the border, and Kosovo sent riot police to the region.
EU officials ultimately brokered an agreement, and troops from the NATO-led peacekeeping forces in the country, known as KFOR, deployed to the region.