Men walk in front of an alternative voting station during municipal elections in Northern Mitrovica, Kosovo, 23 April 2023. Four Serb-majority municipalities in northern Kosovo are holding elections for mayors and municipal institutions in Zvecan, Northern Mitrovica, Zubin Potok and Leposavic, organized by the government in Pristina after a dispute over license plates and personal documents that triggered a Serb walkout from their jobs in institutions of Republic of Kosovo in November 2022. Serbian List party called for boycotting the elections. EPA-EFE/DJORDJE SAVIC

Legitimacy of Local Elections in Question After Low Turnout

The mass boycott of extraordinary elections in the four northern municipalities of Kosovo raises questions about their legitimacy.

Sunday’s extraordinary elections in the four northern Serb-majority municipalities of North Mitrovica, Zvecan, Zubin Potok and Leposavic were marred by a boycott by the main Serbian party, Lista Srpska, and by the Serbian community. 

The turnout was just over 3 per cent. 

As a result, there are concerns over the legitimacy of these elections and whether the elected majors will be accepted by the local community.

After the withdrawal of Serbian List, the largest party of the Serbian minority, ten candidates remained in the race, only one of whom was from the Serbian community.

The vice-president of Serbian List, Milan Radojicic, told the media on Sunday that Serbian citizens in Kosovo “will never allow” municipalities with a Serbian majority in the north to be led by those who won “1 or 2 per cent of the votes” in elections.

Preliminary results show the ruling Vetëvendosje Movement won in North Mitrovica and Leposavic while the Democratic Party of Kosovo, PDK, took Zubin Potok and Zvecan.

BIRN reported directly from the four municipalities on Sunday and asked local Serbs about their opinions on the polls, but neither those who voted nor those who did not would speak to the media.

Serbia’s President, Aleksandar Vucic, praised the boycott by Kosovo Serbs, calling it “a peaceful political uprising” against their “occupiers”, Associated Press reported on Monday. Serbs are claiming harassment by Prishtina authorities and are demanding autonomy for their regions, Associated Press cited Vucic as saying.

New mayors will face obstacles

The fact that local Serbs boycotted the elections because Serbian List and official Belgrade had called for a boycott raises issues of legitimacy. 

Eugen Cakolli, from the Democratic Institute of Kosovo, told Prishtina Insight that the elected mayors will face obstacles gaining access to municipal facilities, taking the solemn oath, and effectively exercising their mandate.

“The low number in the election will create serious challenges, first in the implementation of the election results, namely the formation of local institutions, which will further be the basis for contesting their practical legitimacy,” said Cakolli.

By law, the new mayors must take their oaths of office within one month of the certification of the results before the members of the municipal assembly.

“Considering the control that Serbian List has, and the structures in general, how they work there, it is very unlikely, if not almost impossible, that the mayors will have physical access to municipal spaces [in the north],” he added.

Cakolli expresses concern that even if the mayors manage to take their oaths in alternative forms, perhaps meeting in another place, the formation of directorates will also be a problem due to their lack of  access to their workplaces.

“Thus, there will be a very big risk that the municipalities, or their local executives, will not be able to exercise all their legal powers due to the impossibility, or refusal of the local Serbs to accept services from the new institutions,” said Cakolli.

Caleb Waugh, head of Policy Office at the North Mitrovica NGO Aktiv, stated that while the elections were conducted without procedural issues, the extremely low turnout raises doubts about the legitimacy of the results and the extent to which the elected mayors will have a mandate to perform their duties.

“The decision to move forward with the elections, despite a lack of conditions that would be conducive to the full and active participation of local residents in the north, was made in the absence of any serious consideration of their long-term impact on socio-political dynamics in those municipalities,” Waugh told Prishtina Insight.

According to him, although PM Kurti has insisted otherwise, a mayor elected on a turnout of under 3 per cent “will not be able to establish any sort of trust or connection with citizens, rendering the likelihood of their being able to function normally very slim”.

‘Elections held in accordance with legal framework’

After the first results of the elections, international institutions expressed concern about the low number of voters while acknowledging that the electoral process was conducted in accordance with the legal framework of Kosovo.

“The very low participation, especially among the Serbian citizens of Kosovo, shows that this process is not considered and cannot be considered as usual,” wrote the European Union.

The Rapporteur for Kosovo in the European Parliament, Viola Von Cramon, expressed regret on Twitter about the non-participation of Serbian List in the elections, adding that she condemned the intimidation of all those who wanted to run or vote yesterday.

Only 1,567 citizens, or about 3.47 per cent of registered voters, voted on Sunday according to the Central Election Commission, CEC. Some 45,095 citizens had the right to vote in the four municipalities.

The US embassy stated that although the elections were held in accordance with the constitution, it regretted that not all parties used their democratic right to participate. 

“Participation in elections helps ensure that leaders are representative of the populations they serve. Voting is a critical freedom of democratic societies,” it said in a statement.

Prime Minister Albin Kurti declared on Monday that the boycott was the result of the threatening campaign of Belgrade.

“The atmosphere was one of intimidation and blackmail, so the turnout of citizens in the elections was low,” Kurti wrote on Facebook.

Until November last year, the four municipalities were run by Serbian List, by far the largest party of Serbs in Kosovo. But after it withdrew from Kosovo institutions last year, two days before early elections were called, it urged the local Serbs to boycott the elections.

The snap elections were due to be held on December 18, but after a series of violent incidents and under pressure from the international community, Kosovo postponed them.

The elections were triggered when all mayors in the four Serb-majority municipalities resigned from state institutions last November, claiming that an agreement between Serbia and Kosovo had been breached after the Kosovo government stopped recognising Serbian-issued vehicle plates.

24/04/2023 - 18:09

24 April 2023 - 18:09

Prishtina Insight is a digital and print magazine published by BIRN Kosovo, an independent, non-governmental organisation. To find out more about the organization please visit the official website. Copyright © 2016 BIRN Kosovo.