Spectacular winners and losers in Kosovo elections

While the election results are expected to be certified this week, we look at how the June 11 elections marked a great change in Kosovo politics.

The June 11 parliamentary election in Kosovo was like no other in Kosovo’s brief democratic tradition. Albeit a snap election, it was one of the most sensational electoral and political developments in the new country. Triggered by a successful no-confidence vote that brought down Kosovo’s ‘grand coalition’ between the Democratic Party of Kosovo, PDK, which supported the vote, and Democratic League of Kosovo, LDK, under Isa Mustafa’s (LDK’s leader) premiership, it was launched with the sole purpose of reigniting support for PDK and securing a new governing mandate for the (hitherto) biggest political party in Kosovo and its leader Kadri Veseli. Yet, what looked like just another election that reconfirms the pecking order of political parties in Kosovo with PDK securing a new mandate (since winning its first election and coming to power in 2007, PDK-led governments have never finished a full term in office), turned into a major political realignment and political upsets in Kosovo’s electoral map.

The first major change happened already before the election. Traditionally, Kosovo’s main parties would coalition with minor parties and lists but not with larger parliamentary parties that had entered the Parliament on their own. However, conditioned by two highly controversial rulings by the Constitutional Court of Kosovo in 2014 that advantage the party or pre-electoral coalition that has the biggest number of seats by conceding that it has the right to nominate a speaker of parliament (which is essential to parliament becoming functional) and the right to be the first party to name a nominee for prime minister, political parties sought to increase their chances of coming first by building large pre-election coalitions. And seek they did. On the last day of registration of pre-electoral coalitions, LDK announced a coalition with Behgjet Pacolli’s Alliance New Kosovo, AKR, and the newly formed Alternativa. Shortly before midnight, PDK (which had already formed a coalition with a dozen of smaller parties) made a surprise move to approach opposition parties AAK and Nisma to form a coalition with AAK’s Ramush Haradinaj as the coalition’s candidate for Prime Minister.

This was surprising for a number of reasons. First, it is rather unusual that the biggest party in the country offers the post of the Prime Minister to a smaller party before the election. After all, it had been Kadri Veseli’s ambition to become the next PM and his party’s brazen opportunism that caused the snap election. Second, this is the first time in independent Kosovo that the two (counting for the fact that Nisma emerged out of PDK only in 2014) main parties that emerged from the transformation and/or draw on the legacy of the Kosovo Liberation Army, KLA, would come together with the aim of governing. The ‘war coalition’ thus risked to revive the old post-war cleavages between the ‘war’ and ‘peace’ camps. Third, the pre-existing coalition between AAK and Nisma, which initiated the no-confidence vote, had been a vocal critic of the government and the PDK-led ‘state capture.’ Albeit PDK’s offer, which granted half of places on the coalition list, half of government ministries and the post of the PM to AAK-Nisma, was in many ways irrefutable, it nevertheless carried the risk of electoral backlash due to a pre-electoral union with what they saw as the culprits responsible for Kosovo’s countless malaises.

The biggest shock, however, is the electoral result itself. With less than one per cent of the vote (those from diaspora and conditional ones) to be counted, PDK-AAK-Nisma got 33.9 per cent, followed by Vetevendosje with 27.1 and LDK-AKR coalition with 25.8. Undoubtedly, Vetevendosje is the main winner of this election, having achieved a spectacular result that allowed it to double its vote and overcome the LDK-AKR coalition. Equally, the PDK-led coalition lost almost 1/3 of the combined vote from the 2014 election. Last but not least, although LDK’s lost vote was less dramatic, it nevertheless lost the second place (to Vetevendosje) that it had held for a long time. According to the projections, PDK-AAK-Nisma will have 39 seats, Vetevendosje 31 and LDK-AKR 30, with the extra seats going to non-majority community parties.

The vote for Vetevendosje should, above all, be read as a protest vote. Kosovo’s electorate, in particular its youth, seem to have lost trust in the older political parties that have been characterized by unprincipled politics, political greed and inertia.

This unexpected electoral result is tantamount to a major political upheaval that could potentially change Kosovo’s political map for good. At glance, there are 3 key points of this election. First, Vetevendosje has emerged as the biggest political party in the country leaving behind the two traditional parties, PDK and LDK. Although it is too early to draw conclusions on the causes of this unexpected success, it seems that this rather atypical political formation that combines street action with parliamentary opposition has risen in popularity as a consequence of the many compromises and scandals in which Kosovo’s ruling political parties have been involved.

The vote for Vetevendosje should, above all, be read as a protest vote. Kosovo’s electorate, in particular its youth, seem to have lost trust in the older political parties that have been characterized by unprincipled politics, political greed and inertia. Likewise, although initially it looked like Vetevendosje would be squeezed between the two big coalitions and thus fail to put up a serious challenge, pre-electoral coalitions, largely perceived as opportunistic calculations by the involved parties in their attempt to stay or come to power by any means, seem to have benefited it enormously. Vetevendosje’s challenge now is to make sure that it uses its mandate for change in the right way, albeit the formation of a VV-led government is rather complicated both procedurally and politically. Having been from the outset the biggest opponent of the outgoing government led by LDK, now its support is quintessential for Vetevendosje if it were to form a government. The other challenge is related to the upcoming local elections, where Vetevendosje will find it difficult to replicate its current performance due to weaknesses in local party organization and lack of local leadership.

Second, if Vetevendosje was the spectacular winner of this election, PDK and its leader Kadri Veseli is the spectacular loser. While the coalition as a whole lost some 90,000 votes compared to the last election, PDK’s share of the vote within the coalition seems to have shrank even more dramatically judging by the number of projected MPs (PDK 21, AAK 10, Nisma 8). PDK seems to have lost 16 MPs compared to the 2014 election. Although such a defeat for the largest party, which used to have a very stable voter base from 2000 onwards, was unexpected, there were indications that the hasty coalition with AAK-Nisma had the potential to upset and consequently demobilize the party base. However, the main factor related to this demise is related to the fact that PDK has been in power for ten years now and more and more citizens see it as the main culprit for Kosovo’s overall stagnation. Another factor is related to the departure of Hashim Thaci, who became Kosovo’s President, from the party. It seems that his shoes are too big for his successor, Kadri Veseli, to fill. The third factor could be related to PDK’s decision to nominate Ramush Haradinaj, one of its arch enemies, for Prime Minister. PDK could not foresee that a ‘war coalition,’ which its actors interpreted as ‘an imposed solution,’ and an anti-Serbia nationalist rhetoric, would not go down well with the electorate.  Although they have formally won the election, their victory is a pyrrhic one. Their only hope now to form a government lies in the (ab)use of the Constitutional Court’s decisions, transfer/smuggling of some MPs from the LAA coalition, and support by the Serbian List (that seem to have won 9/10 Serb seats), who openly follows the Serbian Government’s line. Such a coalition would command a razor thin majority in the parliament and in essence would depend on Belgrade.

Although we might be braced for another political stalemate akin to the one in 2014, come what may in the end, Kosovo’s politics won’t be the same again.

Third, this election was a punishment for LDK, too, which proved unable to mobilize its power base despite the decision to nominate the outgoing Minister of Finance, Avdullah Hoti, for Prime Minister instead of the (unpopular) party leader and outgoing Prime Minister, Isa Mustafa, and the inclusion in its list (for the first time) of a younger generation of prominent civil society activists. LDK seems to have fallen victim to its decision to join PDK in a grand coalition in 2014 as well as the political protest current that propelled Vetevendosje into second place. The great share of vote that went for staunch anti-PDK party activists such as Vjosa Osmani, Lumir Abdixhiku, Driton Selmanaj, Anton Cuni, et cetera is a testimony of the brewing anti-PDK sentiment within Kosovo’s oldest party that ultimately punished the party’s leadership for past sins. Having ruled out categorically any cooperation with PDK in the future, LDK now is faced with a major dilemma to support Vetevendosje, with which has traditional political and ideological contradictions, or take a principled position to stay in opposition and work to reform itself.

Although we might be braced for another political stalemate akin to the one in 2014, come what may in the end, Kosovo’s politics won’t be the same again. Although we might wait for the dust to settle before we can make sense of the full grasp of this tectonic change in Kosovo’s political scene, Kosovo’s electorate, like never before in Kosovo’s brief democratic tradition, has sent a clear message of change. It is not up to politicians and parties to materialize it.

Gezim Krasniqi is a Career Development Fellow at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, UK.

28 June 2017 - 09:55

Gëzim Krasniqi

28/06/2017 - 09:55