Municipality mayors with "contensted" legitimacy

03 maj 2023 14:29

Artikulli origjinal.

Organizing extraordinary elections for mayors in the four northern municipalities without the Serbian List, which has so far represented the Serbian majority community, has revived conflicting narratives about the reasons that led to the boycott of the elections by the Serbian majority.

While Kosovar leaders accused Serbia of interfering in the north through propaganda by threatening and blackmailing Serbs if they vote, the other side reinforced the position that this is the next occurrence aimed at the ultimate expulsion of Serbs by "occupying" the north.

For the first time, Albanians have taken over the governing of the municipality in the north, with the Self-Determination Movement and the Democratic Party winning two municipalities each. From a constitutional and legal standpoint, the elections were regular, but concerns have been raised regarding legitimacy due to low turnout.

Election Day ended calmly and without incidents. However, voting did not take place in school facilities as they are controlled by Serbs in the north, who did not allow them to be turned into polling stations. Therefore, the Kosovo authorities placed mobile containers in various locations, replacing around 70 percent of the usual polling centers.

Civil society organizations that monitored the elections have spoken about an unfavorable environment, describing the whole process as an improvisation because the polling stations were placed along main roads, far from inhabited areas. Additionally, the majority of polling places were merged into alternative centers and the number of registered voters for each center reached around 6,000.

The conduct of the electoral process was ensured by the Kosovo Police, which was present at all polling stations, ensuring that the process was completed without any incidents.

While in areas inhabited by the Serbian community there was almost a complete boycott of the elections, in areas inhabited by the Albanian community, a higher trend of voter turnout has been evident. Thus, although the elections met the minimum legal criteria, they do not guarantee the political legitimacy and representation of the institutions that will be constructed from them," says the assessment by "Democracy in Action.”

Mayors with 100 votes

According to data from the Central Election Commission (CEC), out of around 45,000 eligible voters, only 1,567 participated in the elections, marking the lowest turnout in the history of Kosovo's elections, with only 3.4 percent. Lulzim Hetemi from The Self-Determination Movement (LVV) won in Leposavić with 100 votes (73.5 percent). The Self-Determination Movement’s (LVV) candidate for North Mitrovica, Erden Atić, received 553 votes (66.9 percent). In Zubin Potok, the winner was Izmir Zeqiri from the Democratic Party (PDK) with 197 votes, while in Zvečan, Ilir Peci (PDK) won with 114 votes. The only independent candidate from the Serbian community, Slađana Pantović, who ran for Zvečan, received only seven votes. Pantović was under police surveillance during the voting for the April 23rd elections, as well as at her home, throughout the entire time. The physical safety of both candidates and citizens has been a concern for the authorities of Kosovo before and during the elections.

Climate of fear

Kosovo's Prime Minister Albin Kurti attributed the low turnout in the elections to a climate of fear and intimidation. According to him, "the boycott was imposed by the threatening campaign of Belgrade and its criminal proxies on the ground in the north.”

Meanwhile, President Osmani stated that "external interference in electoral processes is a global problem for the democratic world, which not only undermines the will of the citizens but also violates the principle of sovereign equality of states, as one of the fundamental norms of the international order."

On the other hand, Serbian officials called the election boycott a triumph of their policy, while accusing Prishtina and Western countries that supported the holding of the elections without the participation of Serbs.

Despite the statements, claims of intimidation and fear have not been accompanied by reports to competent authorities.

Politicians who are not part of the Serbian List have publicly complained about pressure and threats after withdrawing from the electoral race. The Party of Kosovo Serbs and the citizen initiative "Srpski Opstanak" mentioned job dismissals from Serbian institutions functioning in Kosovo. Moreover, according to them, the salaries of 8 officials in the municipality of Leposavić have been suspended.

However, when prosecutors initiated investigations, they refused to testify in court. Officially, no information on these threats has been processed by the Prosecutor's Office.

A few days before the elections, the authorities in Belgrade intensified measures against Serbs in the north who did not comply with the Serbian List. Serbian police arrested Dragan Nikolić and Dušan Tomović at the Jarinjë border crossing, accusing them of being part of a criminal group led by two Albanian individuals who aim to jeopardize Serbia's legal order. However, Nikolić's lawyer, Ivan Ninić, said that the accusation was politically motivated, as Nikolić's wife was running for the Municipal Assembly in Leposavić.

Even the few Serbs who received votes for the Municipal Assemblies, after the official announcement of the results, refused to take their mandates. The Serbian Party of Kosovo, led by Aleksandar Jablanović, announced that their candidates for councilors, Slavisha Jevtić and Milutin Ilić, won mandates with only one vote each, asking the Central Election Commission to invalidate them. This party withdrew just two days before the elections, however, the names of the candidates appeared on the voting list, which had been printed before their resignations.

The EU links the return of Serbs in institutions with the Association

The European Union ignored the threats and intimidation, and recognized Kosovo's right to hold elections, but at the same time stated that their results do not create a long-term solution. According to the EU, "this can only happen through the permanent return of Kosovo Serbs to institutions and after Kosovo enables this return. For the EU, it is essential to urgently create a possibility "where the Serbs of Kosovo actively participate in local governance, as well as return to the police and judiciary in the north of the country". But this situation has been the same since December of last year. The possible return of Serbs was not discussed even within the discussions that led to the proposal of the European Union and the proclaimed agreement. The fact that the agreement was reached before the date previously set for the extraordinary elections, it should have paved the way for the return of Serbs to institutions and their participation in elections.

Despite the fact that the agreement was proclaimed a success by the EU, Serbian President Vučić repeated on several occasions that it cannot be implemented without the establishment of the Association. Its creation, which is addressed within the framework of Articles 7 and 10 of the EU Proposal, was set by Serbia as a precondition for participation in local elections.

Despite the low turnout, the election process was also not contested by the US, which congratulated the institutions for creating the conditions to conduct the elections, while expressing regret that not all parties took advantage of their democratic right to participate in the elections.

After the elections, the challenge will be exercising the mandate by Albanian mayors. Representatives of the Serbian List have warned that "they will not allow the municipalities in the north to be led by those who received 2 percent of the votes." The message was conveyed by the deputy mayor Milan Radoičić, who has been in hiding for years. But neither he nor the Serbian List have shown what measures they could take to challenge the Albanian mayors, in the region where the local population has often taken to the streets to defend Belgrade's political decisions. Legally, one of the measures they could take is holding a petition. According to the law, such a request must be signed by 20 percent of registered voters and submitted to the head of the municipality assembly.

Meanwhile, the authorities have expressed readiness to guarantee security on the occasion of the inauguration of the elected mayors on April 23rd.

Despite warnings from the EU's High Representative for Foreign Affairs, Josep Borrell, about the risk of escalation that would undermine the Ohrid Agreement, on the meeting held on May 2nd between Prime Minister Kurti and the Serbian president, the situation after the elections in the north was also discussed. Borrell said he presented a proposal but did not reveal what it was, adding that "the leaders did not reach any agreement and I am afraid that we may face a critical situation.”

The Serbs withdrew from the institutions of Kosovo last year after the decision of the Kosovo government to convert illegal license plates to RKS. This situation imposed early elections which were initially scheduled for December 18 of last year, but due to tensions in the north that were accompanied by attacks on the offices of the Central Election Commission (CEC), at the request of the international community, they were postponed until April 23.

*This article is published as part of the Western Balkans Regional Initiative against disinformation. Western Balkans Anti-Disinformation Hub: exposing malign influences through watchdog journalism.

*Prepared by: Fitim Gashi

03 maj 2023