Kosovo’s local elections should make Ashton happy

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Normally local elections anywhere are a rather dull affair. You can’t expect much international interest, even if the contest is a dry run for a general vote somewhere down the line. Not so in Kosovo, where mending ties between Prishtina and Belgrade goes through reintegration of the mainly Serb-populated North – as foreseen under the Brussels Agreement brokered by Catherine Ashton and her team.

The first round on 3 November was marred by violence in the divided town of Kosovska Mitrovica where masked men stormed polling stations.  Vigilantes patrolling the street ensured that few voters would turn out at the ballot box, despite calls from Belgrade to the opposite. The election was annulled in three poling stations in northern Mitrovica pending a re-run.

But alarmist headlines were somewhat misleading. The first round went well in other Serb municipalities around Mitrovica, with turnout as high as 22 percent. Though this was three times below the average, it was still decent for Kosovo’s north and rendered the vote legitimate.  

The re-run helped cement the more or less positive outcome. Secured by NATO, the EU Rule of Law Mission (EULEX) mission, and the Kosovo police, Mitrovica’s re-run resulted in a 22.38 percent turnout. The mayoral candidate from the Civic List of Srpska, supported by Belgrade, emerged victorious in northern Mitrovica. The list had already won in Zubin Potok, Leposavić, and Zvečan, the remaining three northern communes. Now the path is clear for the formation of the Association of Serbian Municipalities, a key part of the Brussels deal.

There’s a strong feeling that an important hurdle has been cleared, and now Serbia will be able to open membership talks after the New Year. Ashton is most probably in a good mood today at the Foreign Affairs Council she chairs. But the key date to watch is the next European Council from 19-20 December when enlargement will be a point of discussion.

Last but not least, the rest of Kosovo is bracing itself for the second round of elections tabled for 1 December. The battle for the large cities in the predominantly Albanian-majority south is still on. In Prishtina, Shpend Ahmeti of the Vetëvendosje (Self-Determination) movement opposing foreign presence in Kosovo did very well in the first round. Even if he doesn’t win he scored a major symbolic victory by dethroning the ruling Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK) from second place. Agim Çeku, once the head of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), finished third, with only 9 percent.

Depending on the final results, the PDK might consider reshuffling the cabinet – bringing an arch-rival, the Alliance for the Future of Kosovo (AAK) of ex-Prime Minister and charismatic KLA commander Ramush Haradinaj. At worse, eroding support could result in early parliamentary polls. Ashton, along with other EU dignitaries, should not overlook what happens outside Mitrovica and the north.

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