In a sign that Kosovo is readying itself for independence, a party led by a former ethnic Albanian guerrilla leader has won the breakaway province's parliamentary election.
Unofficial results have shown that Hashim Thaci of the Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK) has won the key legislative polls.
In election campaigning, Mr Thaci promised ethnic Albanians who comprise 90 percent of Kosovo's two million population he would “immediately” move to declare independence if elected.
The results compiled by independent poll observer Democracy In Action after around 80 percent of votes had been counted indicated that Mr Thaci had secured 34 percent of the vote, well ahead of his nearest rival.
Saturday's elections were boycotted by Kosovar Serbs and were marred by a low turnout with only 43 percent of 1.5 million voters casting their ballot.
The vote came just days before a crucial round of negotiations in Brussels to decide the future status of the southern province, whose independence Belgrade fiercely opposes.
“The citizens of Kosovo sent the world a message…The strongest message was that Kosovo is ready (for) independence,” said Mr Thaci.
Grand coalition tipped
Mr Thaci, a former leader of the political wing of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) which fought forces loyal to late Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic in the 1998-1999 war, is tipped to head a broad coalition government.
Deadlocked negotiations over Kosovo's future must be completed by December 10, when a “troika” of European Union, Russian and US envoys reports to United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.
Analysts said the absenteeism was in effect a strong protest vote against the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK), in power in Kosovo since its 1998-1999 war between the ethnic Albanian rebels and Serbian forces.
The low turnout slashed support for the LDK, the party of late independence icon Ibrahim Rugova, credited with only 22 percent of the vote compared with 45 percent in elections just three years previously.
“Fifteen percent of people experience extreme poverty and live below the poverty line,” said political analyst Behlul Beqaj.
In addition, the electorate was disenchanted with politicians' corruption through misuse of public funds, said the head of the European Movement in Kosovo, a non-governmental organisation.
The vote however got the thumbs up from top European institutions.
“I welcome the fact that the elections in Kosovo on 17 November took place in a calm and dignified atmosphere and were conducted in line with international standards,” the European Union's foreign policy chief Javier Solana said.
Voters snub polls
But he expressed concern over the low turnout, adding: “I particularly regret the non-participation of the Kosovo Serb community and Belgrade's calls for a boycott.”
The Council of Europe and the European parliament Sunday said the elections were in line with continental and global norms but both deplored the poor voter participation.
Legally still a Serbian province, Kosovo has been run by the United Nations since NATO's 1999 air war ended a months-long conflict that killed an estimated 10,000 Albanians and displaced hundreds of thousands.
Serbia is strongly against any form of independence and is only prepared to offer broad autonomy for Kosovo, a southern territory it regards as the cradle of its history, culture and religion.
In Tuesday's status talks, the European Union hopes to enter “a more active” phase of the delicate negotiations, according to EU's foreign policy head Solana.
The future status of Kosovo has created divisions among EU members, with some including Cyprus and Spain concerned that recognition of its unilateral independence will encourage separatists to do the same at home.