Kosovo Election Watch: The Final Week

By Carlo Binda, Vice-President of BCI

Kosovo voters go to the polls on Sunday, February 14, 2021, to elect the 120 national assembly members who will choose a new government, the third in a year.  These snap elections (extraordinary as they are called in Kosovo) resulted from a Constitutional Court ruling that the current government, formed in June 2020, had not been legitimately selected.  This court decision had a cascading effect on politics in Kosovo.

Not only was a new election required — because no party could muster the 61 votes needed to form a government — but the decision of the highest court bars key political actors from participating as candidates for the National Assembly in these snap elections.

While several parties were affected by this prohibition, the most notable was Vetëvendosje, which saw four of its most popular members struck off the candidate list.  Albin Kurti, leader of Vetëvendosje, received the most votes of any candidate in the 2019 extraordinary election, ahead of Vjosa Osmani of the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK), who was the second-highest vote-getter of any candidate in the same election.  This time, Osmani is running as a candidate on the Vetëvendosje list.

Even though Vetëvendosje does not have a couple of its star candidates on the list, many observers expect the party to place well, perhaps even gaining enough seats in the Assembly to form a majority government (61+ seats). However, it will need to include Kosovar Serbs and non-majority community members in the new government.  In and of itself, this process may prove tricky; nonetheless, at self-interest will likely prevail and posts in the cabinet filled.

Tribal Politics it is then!

Despite a global pandemic and a ravaged economy victimised by decades of corruption, mismanagement, and bad luck, these elections are about tribal politics, not policy issues.  There are parties that emerged from the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA); the largest being the Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK), the Alliance for the Future of Kosovo (AAK), and Nisma Social Democratic Party.  These three parties are competing to remind voters who retains the KLA’s original values by tugging on nationalist heartstrings.

Nisma’s leader (with the nom de guerre Commander Steel) Fatmir Limaj is taking full advantage of the fact that two other ‘heroes of the Liberation’ are awaiting trial in the Hague.  He has attacked the PDK candidate for prime minister (Professor of Law and former foreign minister, Enver Hoxaj) for lacking KLA credentials, going so far as to suggest that, during the 1999 war with Serbia, Hoxaj allegedly considered asylum in Belgrade.

Limaj’s strategy here is clear, bleed off enough PDK votes to ensure Nisma makes it over the 5% vote threshold required to claim seats in the National Assembly.  Then, perhaps, hope that the seat margins are narrow enough to be courted by a potential coalition partner.

This political tribalism may very well see PDK lose votes to Nisma, though probably not too many, PDK voters are fairly loyal and would likely not vote at all rather than vote for another party.  For this strategy to work, Nisma will need to convince voters that it is precisely what it has long pretended not to be — a carbon copy of PDK.

AAK’s entire campaign centres on electing its leader Ramush Haradinaj to the presidency.  To be clear, the president of the Republic of Kosovo is not directly elected; rather it is selected by elected members of the National Assembly.  Still, AAK is peddling the notion that if elected, Haradinaj will become President of the Republic, which is far from certain.  So far, in fact, that it verges on fantasy.

The Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK), the major incumbent governing party of the last seven months, is badly wounded politically – some of which have been self-inflicted.   It has attempted to lay out its argument that it is committed to statehood and statecraft and that it is the only party capable of governing with balance and ration.

At the best of times, governing Kosovo is difficult because it never recovered from the de-industrialisation that occurred before 1999 as a deliberate policy of Slobodan Milošević, the genocidal president of Serbia after the fall of Yugoslavia.  As a result, Kosovo did not develop economically and was surpassed by its neighbours, effectively shutting it out of regional markets.

Though LDK has been in government as either senior or junior coalition partner for much of the last twenty years, it has radically failed to address economic development and youth unemployment in particular.  Instead, it lorded over a period in which inequality grew, impunity flourished, and corruption seeped into every aspect of life for ordinary Kosovars.  This state of affairs is not entirely their doing; all parties and political actors can share the credit for Kosovo’s malaise.

Governance is Broken!

[© Marco Fieber (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)]
A significant defect of Kosovo is the certainty and constitutionality of coalition governments.  Coalition partners are not accountable to one another.  They run their assigned, hard-fought-for, fiefdoms and care only for their own.  As Albin Kurti discovered, disciplining a member of your cabinet, from another party, can have terminal consequences for a Prime Minister, and the senior partner in a coalition.

In large measure, it is this for which Vetëvendosje is campaigning.  It is asking that the party gain the majority of seats in the National Assembly to sit firmly in the driving seat to steer much-needed reform. Vetëvendosje argues that a majority will allow it to implement a government program without the threat or fear of losing its mandate to the avarice of other parties or coalition members.

Vetëvendosje’s opponents (and many voters in Kosovo) may be wary of an untested group of political upstarts having the power to govern with little or no levers to keep it in check.  Still, clearly, something needs to change to ensure the government addresses inequality and corruption.  Something needs to happen to ensure the efficiency of government develops economic opportunity and employs an increasingly restless young population.

While the result of Sunday’s election is in the hands of the voters, fixing the country is the responsibility of the politicians.  If they fail, we’ll be back here again next year.

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