Kosovo enjoys micro regime changes
Petrit Selimi, serving as deputy foreign minister of Kosovo and a member of the General Council of the PDK, offers these reflections on Sunday’s second turn municipal election results, the first held on the entire territory of Kosovo under Pristina’s authority since independence (now graced with a few edits):
Kosovo just went through one of the most positive episodes of its’ young democracy. Local elections were organized for the fourth time since the war of 1999 but these elections felt like a new beginning in more than one way.
Those following Balkan politics got plenty of fascinating news from Kosovo this Sunday.
The second round of the local elections took place for the first time in the entire territory of Kosovo. The first round was held on November 3 but many candidates, including in all the biggest cities, failed to pass 50% threshold in the first round. Hence the second round mattered more then usually.
Key issues at stake were the ability of the parties to organize elections in fair and transparent manner after widespread irregularities in 2009, as well as high participation of Serbs in northern Kosovo, thereby ensuring a swifter implementation of the key provisions of Brussels agreement between Kosovo and Serbia. As violence marred the first round elections in the north, media were naturally more focused on the situation there, but Kosovo’s electoral landscape experienced so many tremors that for many people it feels as if the entire political scene got a massive reset. While mainstream parties among Albanians and Serbs can find consolation in their overall national vote, on the local level, municipalities experienced many micro-revolutions. It was a night of many “firsts” that challenged many preconceptions analysts had:
1) It was the first time that all Kosovo Serbs participated in elections organized according to Kosovo law and by Kosovo Election Commission. The northern part of Kosovo always resisted integration with the rest of Kosovo, but these elections marked a watershed moment in implementation of the entire Ahtisaari package in the entire territory of Kosovo. The Brussels agreement between Serbia and Kosovo was exactly this – ensuring implementation of the non-status part of Ahtisaari and closure of parallel structures that defied Kosovo law and continued legal ambiguity and the status-quo. The Serbian List, an electoral coalition supported by Belgrade, won in most of the municipalities, except in Strpce (Brezovica ski resort) where the SLS (Liberal) mayor continued and ensured that Kosovo’s first Serb party did not get completely obliterated from municipal map.
2) It was the first time that there was such a massive change in all of Kosovo. In 2007, LDK’s long communal reign in municipalities ended with victory of PDK. LDK became a regional party with control over the capital city of Prishtina, while PDK had a national axis, winning in all the rest of major urban centers. This time, in most of municipalities incumbents lost heavily, regardless of the party. PDK lost Mitrovica, Ferizaj and Gjilan, where it had mayors seeking the third mandate. LDK lost the crown-jewel of Prishtina, where the mayor was also the head of the party, to Vetevendosja. AAK mayors in Gjakova and Peja lost their battle for a third mandate, but AAK won as a new kid on the block in smaller town of Obilic (where a PDK incumbent lost). PDK lost 6 municipalities in total, but gained two where it challenged incumbents from AAK and LDK (towns of Rahovec and Kamenice).
3) Results showed that Kosovo’s people wanted change, regardless of party affiliation. The elections were a true exercise in democracy. They voted incumbents out, so each of the parties lost and won something out of these elections (though some lost more). These elections were about local issues and campaigns were very much focused on local politics and new faces. Over 2/3 of municipalities shifted hands and now the map shows a highly fragmented division where for the first time ever, former partisan strongholds broke into pieces. PDK now has 10 municipalities, Prizren being the biggest; LDK has 9 municipalities, with a new trio of Peja, Gjilan and Ferizaj added to the tally; AAK has power now in only 3 municipalities; Pacolli’s AKR rules in two cities for the first time in their history; the Belgrade-backed Serbian List participated for the first time and cleaned the table among minority municipalities winning control in 9 of 10 municipalities; PDK splinter group IQM, controlled by the former transport minister Fatmir Limaj, won in Malisheva, thus chipping power away from the long PDK stronghold of Drenica; SLS, the first Serbian party to have accepted the Ahtisaari package back in 2008, now governs in only one city as well.
4) In another first, Mimoza Kusari won big time and will become the first ever woman mayor in Kosovo’s modern history. She is the former Deputy Prime Minister who quit the government a few months ago to run for mayor of the southern city of Gjakova for the second time. Her party also surprisingly (some may say shockingly) won in Mitrovica, kicking out the popular PDK mayor, who entered second round with a healthy lead of 6,000 votes over a candidate who came from the diaspora and was unknown previously. These two victories also challenged the previous consensus that Pacolli’s party was “finished,” as it was sitting as a junior partner in the government. Many analysts predicted AKR would disappear from Kosovo’s political scene as the party was struggling to keep their MP’s from switching parties in the national parliament and was scoring low in opinion polls. The big victories in Mitrovica and Gjakova ensured that AKR will continue to press for a national role and will now have to cities to show as flagships for of their policies.
5) The biggest upset of the night was the race for the capital city. Shpend Ahmeti won over Isa Mustafa, thus becoming a first ever non-LDK mayor in Prishtina. Ahmeti was a former civil society leader who formed a party with the civic platform FER, which failed to pass the 5% threshold in the national elections of 2009. The party disbanded itself, with its founders going separate ways: Ilir Deda became advisor to the President Jahjaga (he since has quit the post) while Shpend Ahmeti joined the nationalistic movement Vetevendosja, which became the third party in Kosovo during 2009 elections. Many observers would consider this victory to herald a more nationalistic agenda in Prishtina, but careful analysis of the numbers shows that grand stories of ethnic belonging were not very popular – Vetevendosja lost around 30,000 votes nationally and is now 4th party nationally, behind PDK, LDK and AAK, closer to fifth party AKR. But Ahmeti himself won 3 times more votes than his own party and managed to convince quite a few citizens of Prishtina from other parties to back him up – which in the end propelled him into mayoral seat. He was trailing by 10,000 votes after first round and he managed to close the gap and win with a margin of 3,000 votes. VV thus won the biggest city, with the biggest budget and biggest staff and a true showpiece. One challenge they have is that they are far from controlling the municipal assembly. VV will need to learn, for the first time ever, the art of compromise to create a functional government on the city level with the mainstream parties that they attacked during the pre-election campaign.
6) Winners and losers? Most parties can claim both.
a. PDK was previously in power in the vast majority of municipalities and has control of the central government. After two mandates, voters have signaled a desire for change, but this was not a clear popular verdict against PDK. The party indeed won in two cities where it used to be in opposition while at the national level (and despite splintering in several directions), PDK kept over 200,000 votes, which ensures the top position in the country. Seven years in power is a long time and PDK will take stock of the results as it prepares to enter the national elections as an incumbent that started several unpopular processes, such as dialogue with Serbia and privatization of PTK.
b. LDK won over the areas where it lost control almost a decade ago, after President Rugova died, including major urban centers Gjilan, Peja and Ferizaj. These last two cities were surprising gains for this party and they can rightfully claim they added the biggest number of cities to their tally. They did loose Prishtina though, where the LDK party president was running for the third term as a mayor. This loss comes as a cultural shock for a party that controlled the city and the massive system of patronage and support that provided the capital with the hundreds of millions of investments by real-estate developers close to LDK.
c. AAK has little reason to celebrate. Haradinaj’s return from Hague did not translate into a massive outpouring of support on the municipal level. Actually, the party lost two cities it firmly controlled in one way or the other almost since 1999, namely Peja and Gjakova. AAK did gain new voters nationally and returned to third place in the national count – surpassing Vetevendosja. AAK will have problem projecting Haradinaj as the new prime minister of Kosovo with these results.
d. AKR may have won most. Pacolli was being dismissed in the last few years as a “PDK poodle” and was generally viewed with skepticism by both civil society and the rest of opposition. Having a millionaire chairman meant that the party did have some financial means at disposal and the two candidates which won in Gjakova and Mitrovica were likable. Mimoza Kusari is a national face. She broke the glass ceiling by becoming Kosovo’s first woman mayor. In Mitrovica AKR chose an Albanian businessman from Belgium who was not very orthodox but still managed to collect votes from the other parties to beat popular Kastrati in the second round. Possibly, this specific defeat was most unexpected, as Mitrovica was considered to have become a stronghold for the PDK during last years.
e. VV’s victory was most spectacular as it unseated LDK from the capital city. All analysts agree that VV’s lesson is simplest: voters rejected the policies of VV (grand narrations such as Great Albania, fighting with internationals, using violent protests and language) but liked Shpend’s campaign (civilized, seeking consensus and focused on local issues). VV lost tens of thousands of votes elsewhere and they will have to replicate Shpend elsewhere if they want to get traction in what suddenly became very competitive landscape.
f. The Srpska List also became a winner, equal almost to PDK and LDK with the number of municipalities it controls. They will function according to Kosovo law, but Krstimir Pantic in Mitrovica did send a clear message on Monday after the vote, saying that 9 mayors in Kosovo will not recognize independence of the country. Many elements need to be implemented of the Brussels agreement to ensure that constitutionality and legal framework of Kosovo become the undisputed roadmap for any local politics, otherwise tensions will mount.
g. Serbian liberals played a historic role when they started integrating the south of Kosovo into Kosovo institutions back in 2008. Now they paid a price for it and lost all but one municipality, but observers agree that anti-incumbent wave could not have missed SLS, with stories of bad management in southern enclaves and major divisions that split this party in 3 separate entities.
The biggest winner is Kosovo. It managed to organize successful and free elections in the entire territory of the republic. The opposition won in most municipalities and Sunday evening saw a flurry of concession speeches for the first time ever as mayors acknowledged the results. Kosovo doesn’t get much slack from major democracy monitors (it is unfairly considered as “semi-authoritarian” by Freedom House report, on par with Azerbaijan) but these elections should fix some of the image problem and ensure a smoother EU integration process. The agreement with Serbia must be implemented through creation of functional institutions in the north of the country.
Another big winner are the representatives of the new generation of politicians. Muhaxhiri in Peja, Ahmeti in Prishtina and Kusari in Gjakova have been members of civil society or civic parties ORA and FER. They lacked popular support previously. But wearing the mantle of bigger parties, they managed successfully to profile themselves as people of change.