Kosovo awaits first election results since independence as tensions rise

• Serb minority heeding Serbia's call to boycott vote
• EU concerned that unrest could lead to Kosovo's partition

There were queues outside polling stations across Kosovo tonight amid expectations of a high turnout in the first parliamentary elections since the country formally declared independence from Serbia in 2008.

As darkness fell, people lined up along the corridors of Faik Konica school, a polling station in the centre of the capital, Pristina, with most saying economic deprivation was top of their list of priorities.

At a time of high unemployment and widespread complaints of corruption, there is concern over the future of the fragile democracy more than a decade after a Nato-led bombing campaign forced the retreat of Serbian troops to end the Kosovo war.

The western-backed country became a UN protectorate in 1999, and three years ago unilaterally declared independence. That move was accompanied by a reduction in international peacekeeping troops, with an EU mission staying to oversee law and order.

Many Kosovans have grown disenchanted with the foreign presence and complain that living conditions have barely improved since the oppressive rule of the Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic.

"I'm voting for changes – life, education, jobs," said Mento Sfishta, 40, before casting one of the 1.6m certified ballot papers. Fatima Shevemeti, 47, said: "We need more local production, more plants and factories. First of all there should be changes to the economy."

Opinion polls suggest the incumbent prime minister, former guerrilla leader Hashim Thaçi, could return to power in a close-run vote. His Democratic party of Kosovo had about 30% of the vote in surveys, a few percentage points ahead of the Democratic League of Kosovo, its former coalition partner, and a high turnout is not thought to be in Thaçi's favour.

He called the snap elections last month when the coalition collapsed. With no obvious post-election settlement, there is concern that a stalemate could destabilise Kosovo and jeopardise the resumption of talks with Serbia over its former territory.

EU officials claim the poll is a sign of maturity for the embryonic state, which is recognised by 72 UN nations. But they are privately concerned at the possibility that ethnic unrest could lead to Kosovo's partition into a Serb north and ethnic Albanian south.

In a sign of growing integration, there were also queues at a polling station in Gracanica, a Serb enclave. "Half of the people in this town are voting," said Dejan Welic, 32, an unemployed police officer. "From the Kosovo government we do not get any economic help to survive and we want jobs. People want to vote."

Serb voters appeared relaxed as they waited to cast their vote near a town centre where flags from Serbia and the United States hang side by side – a scene unimaginable just a few years ago.

It was not the same, however, in the northern territory, home to most of Kosovo's 120,000-strong Serb minority, who refuse to recognise rule from Pristina. Kosovo TV showed polling stations empty, suggesting residents had heeded Serbia's call for a boycott. There were reports of minor skirmishes.

Serbia's drive to oppose Kosovo's secession received a setback in July when the international court of justice ruled that Kosovo's independence declaration was lawful.

Hours before polls opened, a building used by Nato peacekeepers was fired at in an attempt to discourage Serbs from taking part in the vote. No one was injured, but it came four days after the murder of a Bosnian official who had been organising the election in Mitrovica.

An ethnically divided town, Mitrovica has been the centre of tensions between Albanians and Serbs since the end of the war.

Despite the international community's focus on relations with Serbia, the 10-day election campaign has been dominated by domestic concerns over the dire economy.

Opposition parties accuse the ruling coalition of widespread corruption and a failure to address unemployment, estimated to be as high as 48%.

There has been a surge of support for the nationalist Self-determination party, which is expected to poll third and could hold the balance of power. Led by a former student leader who railed against the "colonial" influence of western powers and called for Kosovo's unification with Albania, the party has relied heavily on an internet campaign on Facebook that has appealed to young voters.

Another party expected to prove crucial in coalition negotiations is the Alliance for the Future of Kosovo, the party of a guerrilla commander whose brief reign as prime minister came to an end when he was charged with war crimes at the UN tribunal in The Hague. Ramush Haradinaj's retrial in the war crimes court is expected to begin in the new year.


Paul Lewis in Pristina

The GuardianTramp

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