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Leftist opposition party heads to victory in Kosovo election

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Albin Kurti, a candidate for prime minister of Vetevendosje (Self-Determination), casts his ballot paper in parliamentary elections in capital Pristina, Kosovo, Sunday, Feb. 14, 2021. Kosovo is holding an early parliamentary election to form a new government amid the coronavirus pandemic, an economic downturn and stalled negotiations with wartime foe Serbia. (AP Photo/Visar Kryeziu)

PRISTINA – Kosovo’s main opposition party appeared headed to a landslide victory in Sunday’s early election of a new parliament held amid the coronavirus pandemic, an economic downturn and stalled negotiations with wartime foe Serbia.

With 65% of the votes counted by the central Election Commission, the main governing election body, the left-wing Self-Determination Movement Party, or Vetevendosje, had 48% of the votes. It led two center-right parties — the Democratic Party of Kosovo, or PDK, which had 18%, and the Democratic League of Kosovo, or LDK, with 14%.

Hundreds of Vetevendosje supporters defied calls from the party leadership “to celebrate at home, with the family” and gathered at the Mother Teresa Square in Pristina chanting, dancing and launching firecrackers while vehicles blowing horns drove around the center.

“We are here to celebrate the liberation of our government and our people,” said Ali Shilova, a Vetevendosje! supporter. “We are the people of this country who will take over and make it for everybody, not just for people who are in power.”

Acting Prime Minister Avdullah Hoti of the LDK had yet to concede defeat.

Some 1.8 million voters cast ballots to choose 120 lawmakers among more than 1,000 candidates from 28 political groups and few irregularities were reported. Some 100,000 Kosovars abroad were also eligible to vote by post. Those infected with coronavirus could vote through mobile polling teams.

Voter turnout was estimated at 47%, which was 2.5% higher than the last election in 2019, according to the Central Election Commission.

“Today Kosovo showed how elections should be held, despite the many challenges it faced,” said Valdete Daka, election commission chief.

Police considered the process as “calm and without serious incidents.”

Voters defied minus 10 degrees Celsius (14 Fahrenheit) temperature and snowfall to cast their ballots.

Albin Kurti, leader of the Self-Determination Movement party, would form a government if the vote figures held up.

The new Cabinet will face the challenge of bringing the poor country’s economy back on its feet and reducing unemployment after battling back the pandemic, as well as fighting organized crime and corruption.

“A lot of challenges lie ahead," Kurti told The Associated Press.

Negotiations on normalizing ties with Serbia, which stalled again last year after talks brokered by the U.S. and the European Union, have not figured high on any party’s agenda.

The election was scheduled after Kosovo’s Constitutional Court rendered invalid a vote by a convicted lawmaker who helped confirm Hoti’s Cabinet named in June after Kurti was removed as prime minister.

In Serb-dominated northern Kosovo, Belgrade asked Serbs to support the Serb List party. One voting commissioner in northern Mitrovica complained that Serbs were voting two or three times. Daka said prosecutors were investigating.

Kosovo's Serb minority has 10 seats in parliament and 10 other seats belong to other minorities.

The European Union sent monitors to watch the vote.

Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008, a decade after a brutal 1998-1999 war between separatist ethnic Albanian rebels and Serb forces. The war ended in June 1999 after a 78-day NATO air campaign drove Serb troops out and a peacekeeping force moved in.

Most Western nations have recognized Kosovo, but Serbia and its allies Russia and China do not. Tensions over Kosovo remain a source of volatility in the Balkans.

Within two months of taking their seats in parliament, Kosovo’s lawmakers must elect the country’s president. If no candidate is elected after three rounds of voting, the country might see an early presidential election.