Which is the biggest political party in Kosovo?

In Kosovo, local elections do not necessarily reflect the trends set by the general elections; a party could fail at the national level, but be very successful at the municipal level.

The biggest surprise of the local elections held on October 22 was that Vetevendosje did not manage to surprise us again. Many of the incumbent mayors will go to runoffs, LDK managed to win the greatest number of Albanian-majority municipalities, and PDK managed to go to runoffs in many municipalities but continued to see decline in its number of votes. Vetevendosje will also go to runoffs in six municipalities, but failed to continue the momentum of the June 11 general elections by not becoming the biggest party at the local level.

Looking at the main parties represented in the National Assembly, Vetevendosje is the biggest, followed by LDK, and then PDK (outside of their coalitions). Now, after Sunday’s elections, according to the overall number of votes, at the municipal level LDK is the biggest party, followed by PDK, and then Vetevendosje. So, which is the largest party in the country?

On the eve of October 22, LDK’s Lumir Abdixhiku wrote that “LDK has returned as the largest party in the country.” But is this true? Does winning several municipalities in the local elections make LDK the biggest party?

Last year I was at an event in Berlin where several academics presented their scientific models to forecast the outcome of the 2017 German elections. One of the methods involved using the results of federal level elections, or Landtagswahlen, because they often reflect the results of national elections. But the results can be very different if you take a variable from one country and use it in another one.

However, could we say for Kosovo that local elections reflect the national ones and vice versa? To answer this we not only have to interpret the numbers in the same way for both kinds of elections, but we should also analyze the fundamental differences between the national and local elections in Kosovo.

In general elections, people vote for prime minister and MPs, and the performance of the party is estimated at the central level, taking into account partisanship, the party’s program, and the electoral campaign on a national level.

Local elections also depend on similar factors, but on a micro level – which is also what makes the reasons why people vote for certain parties entirely different.

On a local level we’re dealing with different people, different performance assessments, and entirely different popularity ratings for local politicians. When we look at local elections, we have to consider the mayoral candidates, assembly members, and the party’s performance on a local level, the partisanship for the party’s local branch, and also the plans presented during the campaign.

Mayoral and prime minister candidates

At first glance, voting for a candidate running for mayor might seem like the same thing as voting for a prime minister, but we have to clearly differentiate between the two: the votes given to a prime minister candidate do not immediately translate into votes for a mayoral candidate of the same party. For example, Albin Kurti of Vetevendosje received the highest number of votes in Ferizaj, but on the other hand, the PDK candidate for mayor, Agim Aliu, remains very popular in that municipality, even more than Kadri Veseli or Hashim Thaci.

From the very beginning of the local electoral campaign, Vetevendosje was criticized  for not choosing the right mayoral candidates in many of the municipalities where it had won the majority of the votes in the June general elections. In local elections, in several municipalities some independent candidates have more success than political parties, especially in those where PDK used to have a majority in general elections, such as Skenderaj and Hani i Elezit, but also Shtime, a PDK stronghold where the incumbent mayor is threatened by an independent candidate.

In Peja, LDK won an absolute majority of votes in local elections, but Avdullah Hoti as a candidate for prime minister failed to get half of the votes the local mayor had in this municipality. Ramush Haradinaj as a candidate of the PAN coalition did not manage get the majority of the votes in South Mitrovica, and PDK’s mayoral candidate in that municipality won them without AAK and NISMA. So, there are numerous examples illustrating that even when they are from the same party, the candidate for prime minister in general elections and a mayoral candidate in local elections differ a lot. Local politicians can win local elections, but they cannot ensure the same votes for the national level and vice versa.

MP lists vs. the local assembly

The MP list at the national level and that of assembly members at the municipal level are both simply lists of political candidates. However, their composition is fundamentally different and strongly influences the voting behavior. There are less than 1,000 MPs running for the general elections, whereas for the local elections there are around 7,000 candidates. The fact that voters tend to have a rather impersonal relationship with the MPs running makes the election process more meritocratic. Statistically, it is less likely for a voter to have a family connection with the person running for parliament; and even in the unlikely event that there is a family connection, there are still four more votes to give since Kosovo’s electoral system allows voters to select five MPs.  

On the other hand, voters pick only one candidate from the list of local assembly members, and it is more likely that the person voting will have a family or social relation with the person running for the municipal assembly. Parties are well aware of this and that is why on their assembly member lists they decide to put people from various neighborhoods and municipal villages, in order to geographically cover as many votes as possible from the municipality. The friends and family members running for the municipal assembly “force” voters to pick a certain party. If, say, a person generally votes Vetevendosje, but their cousin r runs under the flag of PDK, it is very likely they could vote for PDK in local elections. This is especially true in a traditional place like Kosovo, where loyalty towards family and friends is greater than towards any given party.

The party at a national and local level

A party could fail at the national level, but be very successful at the local level. A good example of this is Vitia, where in the national election, residents mostly voted for Vetevendosje, but seemed to be happy with the way things went locally and voted for LDK, allowing the incumbent mayor to win without a runoff.

The same is true for other opposition parties. Vetevendosje voters might have been satisfied with the opposition’s performance at the national level, but not at the local level. Compared to Vetevendosje, LDK and PDK have better established party branches, both in big cities and smaller peripheral municipalities. AAK is similar in some of the municipalities, mainly in the Dukagjini region. Meanwhile, Vetevendosje continues to have problems establishing itself at the local level.

Even though, for example, Kadri Veseli as a national candidate this year did not resonate as widely with the PDK electorate as Hashim Thaci did in the past, local PDK candidates remain to be quite enticing for the party’s electorate. In Ferizaj, Prizren, and Mitrovica, PDK had the most votes, despite not winning without runoffs.

On the other hand, the national-level success of Vetevendosje continues to not be translated into local-level success. For example, in Ferizaj, South Mitrovica, and Gjilan, Vetevendosje came up first in national elections, but could not even go to runoffs during the local elections. Being established as a big party in the central level simply does not ensure victories in the local level.

Breaking the party strongholds

Political strongholds in post-war Kosovo were created based on the influence that different  political groups had before the war; for LDK, its influence was defined by its civil resistance, and the war-wing of PDK and AAK with military resistance. The post-war parties AKR, Alternativa, and Vetevendosje are constantly faced with the challenge of breaking strongholds. Until now, the most successful way has been to make it to the runoffs and then win in the runoffs either through coalitions or by mobilizing voters from other parties. In 2013, this was the case with Vetevendosje in Prishtina, LDK in Peja, and AKR in South Mitrovica.

Local strongholds do not necessarily hold for national elections, especially when the national-level voter feels betrayed, such as what may have been the case in 2014 when LDK joined a coalition with PDK, or when PDK ran with the PM candidate from AAK.

And at the local level, a party’s low performance may be the result of the party selecting the wrong candidates or having weak local party branches, such as what may have happened this time around with Vetevendosje.

In sum, it is problematic to say that Vetevendosje is the largest political party in the country, or that LDK is, because the results from 2017’s general and local elections greatly differed and there is a big number of swing voters.

The battle between the political parties is to win the undecided voter. PDK, as part of the PAN coalition, will find it difficult to increase its numbers even if the PAN coalition succeeds in governing, because any success is generally attributed to the prime minister, and in this case he comes from a different party, AAK. Meanwhile, both LDK and Vetevendosje will attempt to build their power and become the strongest opposition and alternative to the PAN coalition.

Mehdi Sejdiu is a researcher in Germany and Kosovo. He studies political science at Heidelberg University.

The opinions expressed in the opinion section are those of the authors only and do not necessarily reflect the views of BIRN.

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