Snap election could give Kosovo its first female prime minister
New government will have to tackle corruption, poverty and frosty relations with Serbia
A poster of Vjosa Osmani, election candidate for prime minister from the opposition party Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK), on a bus stop in Pristina. Photograph: Armend Nimani/AFP
Kosovo is preparing to vote in an unpredictable parliamentary election that could see a former rebel commander replaced as the head of government by the country’s first female prime minister.
Ramush Haradinaj resigned as premier in July to answer questions about his record during Kosovo’s 1998-1999 war, triggering early elections on Sunday that may put US-educated law professor Vjosa Osmani in pole position to take power.
Coalition talks are likely to follow a hard-fought election in which debate over reform and corruption has raged amid speculation over the possible terms of an elusive deal to normalise relations between Kosovo and its former ruler, Serbia.
“Going in front of investigators in another jurisdiction would have damaged our sovereignty and created a wrong precedent for our young nation, so I had to resign,” says Haradinaj, who was interviewed at the so-called Kosovo Specialist Chambers in The Hague despite twice before being acquitted of war crimes charges.
“These are difficult elections and it won’t be easy to win,” he told The Irish Times in government headquarters in Pristina.
“I am still in the battle, but I don’t know what will happen.”
Anger over corruption, poverty, unemployment and ailing public services has tarnished his government, and its fractious relations with president Hashim Thaci – another former guerrilla commander – has strengthened a sense that it may be time to look beyond war veterans for the reform that Kosovo needs.
“We will remove from power those who have strangled Kosovo,” Osmani declared on the campaign trail.
“My political opponents are afraid of the big change we will bring,” the AFP news agency quoted her as saying.
Osmani (37) has helped re-energise the Democratic League for Kosovo (LDK), which was founded by “father of the nation” Ibrahim Rugova and advocated peaceful resistance to Belgrade through the 1990s collapse of Yugoslavia, before the outbreak of fighting in Kosovo that killed about 13,000 people and displaced more than one million.
After studying in Pristina and Pittsburgh, Osmani served as chief of staff to Kosovo’s president Fatmir Sejdiu a decade ago, worked on the country’s successful bid to have the UN’s top court recognise the legality of its 2008 independence declaration, and chaired the foreign affairs committee in the last parliament.
“In my opinion she’s the best candidate” for prime minister, says Lulzim Peci, executive director of the Kosovo Institute for Policy Research and Development [Kipred].
“The LDK seems to have got new momentum from making her its lead candidate and it seems to have created new momentum in the electorate too,” he adds.
“This is the first time a big political party in Kosovo has nominated a woman to be prime minister and I think this is a huge change in our political and even social mentality . . . Patriarchalism is fading in Kosovo.”
“She would be a formidable prime minister,” he told The Irish Times.
“She’s very focused on better relations with the EU and in the neighbourhood and that’s exactly what Kosovo needs . . . to represent itself on the European and global stage in a different way. She will present that as someone new, young and fresh, who doesn’t have the baggage that some other politicians have.”
Osmani pledges to slash corruption and bureaucracy and shrink government, freeing up funds to plough into healthcare and education, while launching a stringent vetting procedure to “decriminalise” Kosovo’s judicial system.
Polls show the LDK vying for victory with the Vetevendosje party, which has similar reform priorities and plans to reduce the number of ministries, but also aims to strengthen the welfare state, cut utility bills and create a sovereign wealth fund to revive state enterprises.
Founded in 2005, Vetevendosje (“Self-determination”) is a leftist movement with a nationalist streak that has been a fierce critic of successive governments and what it sees as foreign interference in Kosovo, leading big street protests and repeatedly setting off tear gas in parliament to block major Bills that it opposed.
Vetevendosje took 27.5 per cent of votes in the 2017 parliamentary election, but despite being the biggest single party it failed to form a government, as Haradinaj’s broad coalition secured a slim majority with the support of deputies from Kosovo’s ethnic minorities, including the Belgrade-backed Serb List party.
After Vetevendosje split last year, there are now signs that its leader, Albin Kurti, may be softening his firebrand image and showing newfound flexibility in a bid to take power at long last and beat Osmani to the post of premier.
“I think Albin has learned the lessons of recent years – especially since Vetevendosje won the mayoral elections in Pristina (in 2013 and 2017) – that he cannot govern without partners and compromise is part of political life in Kosovo,” says Peci. “I think he has changed . . . and is very much a possible prime minister.”
Kosovo’s next leader will be under considerable pressure from its western allies to reach a compromise deal with Serbia to normalise their relations and open up the prospect of eventual EU membership for both states.
All the top candidates for prime minister reject any suggestion of handing over territory to Belgrade in return for its recognition of Kosovo’s independence, however.
“I hope everyone understands that [border changes] would mean danger, a threat of instability and wars. They should realise that they would be responsible for another tragedy,” says Haradinaj, who strongly opposed any “land swap” even as it was tentatively proposed by Thaci and Serbian president Aleksandar Vucic.
Haradinaj says full recognition from Belgrade would allow Pristina to lift a 100 per cent tariff that it imposed on Serbian imports last November, in response to Vucic’s efforts to block Kosovo from international organisations.
“But that’s probably all we could give,” he adds.
“Why not go for good neighbourly relations, privileges in the economy and peace and reconciliation? I’m in favour of this and I think that in the end, these will be the main arguments.”