PRISTINA -- Preliminary results in Kosovo's municipal elections indicate that 17 municipalities have picked winners in mayoral races while 21 others will head into a second round of voting, including the closely watched battle in the capital, Pristina.
Prime Minister Albin Kurti's Vetevendosje Movement (LVV) did not win any municipalities outright in the first round but will compete in 12 races in the second round, including in Pristina, according to preliminary results. In the 2017 local elections, LVV won the capital.
Analysts say initial results are seen as a disappointment to Kurti and his party.
Kurti, however, said on October 18 that he was satisfied with the results.
"We are pleased with what we have achieved because even at the national level, LVV became the first and largest political party in the local polls, too," Kurti said at a press conference in Pristina.
He added that his party had never been "stronger," as he stressed that LVV was now the first political party at the central and local level. Kurti's party scored a resounding victory in early parliamentary elections in February, winning more than 50 percent of the vote on promises to battle endemic corruption and take a tougher stance on peace talks with Serbia.
Kurti added that in the runoff the party will aim to win all the contested municipalities and he expressed his belief that LVV candidate Arben Vitia, a former health minister, will win the mayoral election in Pristina.
Vitia, who got more than 42 percent in the first round, will face off against the candidate of the Democratic League of Kosovo, Perparim Rama, who garnered just over 29 percent of the vote.
The Serbian List, which is close to the Serbian leadership in Belgrade, won nine out of 10 Serb-majority mayoral races in the northern part of the country, while the Democratic Party of Kosovo won four races, the Alliance for the Future of Kosovo two, and the Democratic League of Kosovo two.
Voting in the country appeared to go peacefully. Police reported arresting seven people for possible voting violations.
More than 42 percent of eligible voters -- or some 770,000 individuals -- had cast ballots on October 17, the Central Election Commission reported after the polls closed at 7 p.m.
Serb-majority municipalities had the highest turnout.
Despite its very good showing in the general polls in February, Kurti's LVV faced a tougher challenge in municipal elections, where local personalities are often more influential than national parties.
Voters cast ballots for 38 mayors and more than 1,000 local officials representing municipalities in Kosovo. A total of 166 candidates ran for mayors, and 5,198 candidates ran for the 1,002 seats in the municipal assemblies.
Municipal elections in big cities were dominated by such issues as investments in infrastructure and healthcare, access to clear water, beautification -- including the creation of green spaces -- and addressing sewage problems.
The municipal elections came amid efforts to vaccinate the population against the coronavirus and after a series of incidents in Serb-dominated regions of northern Kosovo that has captivated the country's attention.
Polling stations operated with strict anti-COVID rules in place, including mandatory face masks and social distancing. Some 3,400 police officers were deployed to maintain law and order.
The elections took 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."
The elections were carried out amid rising tension in the country's northern regions that border Serbia.
Earlier this month, ethnic Serb villagers in northern Kosovo blocked roads and clashed with police after the 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 Serbs villages becoming part of the new nation. Serbia has refused to recognize its former province as a sovereign state.
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.