Polls open in Kosovo

Kosovo votes to choose a new Parliament for Europe`s youngest state.

Pristina: Election officials say polls across Kosovo have opened for Sunday`s snap election, the first for the country`s Parliament since it broke away from Serbia.

Voting material was transported to over 2,000 polling stations in Kosovo`s 37 municipalities under armed police protection, election officials said on Sunday.

Some 1.6 million voters are eligible to take part in the poll vote for 29 political parties, coalitions and citizens` initiatives to enter Kosovo`s 120-seat Parliament.

Polls indicate a close race between the ruling social democratic party PDK and the right-wing LDK, who both campaigned on promises to improve a weak economy and to fight corruption.

The European Union views the snap elections as one of the most important tests for Kosovo since it declared independence from Serbia in 2008 and says a free and fair vote is a condition for positive future ties.

Recognised by Western powers but not yet a United Nations member, Kosovo must live up to the pledge of fostering peaceful relations between the majority Albanians and the minority Serbs and fight poverty.

After the International Court of Justice ruled this year that Kosovo`s independence did not violate international law, the United Nations asked Kosovo and its ex-ruler Serbia to start talks on practical issues, the first task of the new government.

"I hope the newly-elected government in Pristina will establish direct talks with Serbia right after the election, in order to tackle the problems of everyday life," Germany`s Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said in Berlin.

Germany has the biggest number of peacekeepers in Kosovo and is one of the main backers of its independence.

About half of the 120,000 Serbs -- those living in mixed areas with the Albanians -- are expected to take part in the elections while the others, living in the divided northern part linked to Serbia by road, plan not to vote.

In the ethnically divided town of Mitrovica, posters call Serbs to boycott Sunday`s election.

"No to elections in the false state of Kosovo," reads one.

Fighting corruption and reviving the economy to bring official unemployment rates down from 48 percent took centrestage in the campaign.

"I hope things will get better, that a stronger leader comes to power to fix things for Kosovo and not to steal," said Bekim Morina, 32, who was selling used cell phones in a pedestrian area facing the government offices.

About 1.6 million voters can vote to pick 120 MPs. Twenty seats are reserved for ethnic minorities. About 32,000 election observers, including 840 international monitors, will be on hand on Sunday.

"We urge all political parties to ensure a free and fair electoral process, in which every vote counts, since it is fundamental for any democratic state and crucial for Kosovo`s EU integration process," said Doris Pack, the head of the European Parliament`s election observer mission.

The campaign was mainly peaceful, but was marred by the killing of a Kosovo Bosniak election official on Wednesday loyal to the government in Pristina in the Serb-controlled part of the divided town of Mitrovica.

On Saturday on the eve of the vote, Kosovo was calm. A girl threatening to jump off a bridge in Mitrovica, a hotspot of trouble between Serbs and Albanians, was the most serious matter for police.

Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008, almost 10 years after NATO bombing drove out Serb forces to stop the killing of Albanians in a two-year war.

Bureau Report

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