The leader of the left-wing opposition party claiming a surprise victory in Kosovo's parliamentary elections has pledged to start coalition talks to end the dominance of parties led by former independence fighters and turn a corner in Europe's newest state.
Onetime student leader Albin Kurti, of the upstart Self-Determination (Vetevendosje) party, vowed to turn to the second-place finishers, the center-right Democratic League (LDK) and their prime ministerial candidate Vjosa Osmani, to form a government.
Their parties appeared to take home more than 50 percent of the vote in the October 6 elections based on pledges to break a logjam of corruption and inequality among Kosovo's 1.9 million people and boost the still partially recognized Balkan country's international standing.
Outsiders are waiting to see if a government can muster a clear mandate to rejoin Western-mediated talks to normalize relations with neighboring Serbia, suggesting it could send a potentially stabilizing signal to the rest of the region.
But while Kosovo's voters appear to have run out of patience with the men who took up arms for independence in the 1990s, the way forward in Pristina could get more complicated still.
Maybe Kosovars Just Aren't That Into Former Guerrilla Leaders Anymore
Voters appear to have blamed many of the country's most stubborn problems on the tight grip on the government of ex-guerrilla fighters for independence from Serbia and their parties, most notably the long-ruling Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK).
The PDK, which emerged from the demilitarized Kosovo Liberation Army (UCK), has led each of the coalition governments that emerged from the three previous elections since the country gained independence in 2008.
None of those governments lasted a full four years in office.
These elections were prompted by the summons from The Hague that outgoing Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj received to answer questions about his wartime past, when he fought for the UCK against Serbian forces.
/**/ /**/ /**/ SEE ALSO: Former Student Protest Leader On Brink Of Winning Kosovo Elections
But any calculation that his standing among Kosovars as a former liberator would boost his election hopes looked to be dashed. His '100-Percent Kosovo Coalition' garnered nearly 12 percent in the October 6 vote.
Meanwhile, the PDK, the party seen to be associated most closely with former fighters in government -- including President Hashim Thaci -- found itself in third place. The PDK looks bound for around 21 percent of the vote, its worst-ever showing in national elections and down by more than one-third from attaining nearly 34 percent in 2017.
Most of the other major ethnic Albanian parties -- some of whom had previously partnered with the PDK in government -- rejected the idea of doing so again ahead of this vote.
Even one of the perceived winners of the elections, the conservative Democratic League, which governed with the PDK until 2017, might have been dented by its association with the ancient regime of ex-rebels.
Moreover, the Democratic League's prime ministerial candidate, U.S.-educated Osmani, campaigned in part on a portrayal of her as a successor to Kosovar independence icon Ibrahim Rugova, the country's first president.
But despite her newcomer appeal and pleas for a 'transformative' vote for 'the institutions of Kosovo...[and] society as a whole,' Osmani's party failed to gain from voters' exodus toward new faces, falling below 25 percent support for the first time since 2010.
However, the Democratic League's performance (24.9 percent) was good enough to get it and Self-Determination (25.6 percent) a combined majority of the vote.
The shift was particularly apparent in the capital, which accounted for over 53 percent of the total vote, according to the Central Election Commission.
Self-Determination won 37 percent and the Democratic League 32.5 percent of the vote there, each more than doubling the support for the third-place PDK, which got 15 percent of Pristina's vote.
Kosovars Want Respectability And Change, And They Want It Now
While the rest of the world awaits a verdict on the talks with Serbia, the opposition victory appeared to reflect dissatisfaction among Kosovars who've felt left out of the country's notably steady economic growth of the past decade.
Independent Kosovo started off disadvantaged compared to many of its Balkan neighbors.
And while it 'has outperformed its neighbors and been largely inclusive' -- it is one of just four European countries to have grown its economy every year since 2008 -- youth and women's unemployment remain high and Kosovo is still plagued by 'infrastructure bottlenecks,' according to the World Bank. Outmigration continues to be a problem, with remittances fueling a good portion of that economic growth.
A campaign poster in Pristina for outgoing Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj, who fared badly in the elections.
But as Europe's youngest population with an average age of 29, it remains poor with persistent joblessness of around 25 percent (and nearly 50 percent youth unemployment).
Domestic challenges like the fight against rampant corruption and nepotism, investment in the health and education sectors, and job creation were seemingly prominent in voters' minds.
As a result, at home and abroad -- hundreds of thousands of Kosovar nationals reside elsewhere -- the outcome was widely seen as a determined cry for change.
'These [corruption and economic] issues, in essence, are demanded to a far greater degree by citizens than the dialogue process with Serbia,' Arton Demhasaj, whose NGO, Cohu (Wake Up), works to expose official corruption in Kosovo, told RFE/RL's Balkan Service.
Kurti has vowed under his government to target five key areas: rule of law, economic development, the education and health sectors, and social issues.
Osmani has ticked off equality in the workplace as a priority and investment in education not 'asphalt.'
'The strongest party now is a party that has no experience in governing the country,' said Toby Vogel, a writer on Southeast European issues and senior associate at the Democratization Policy Council. 'I think that is a reflection of the fact that Kosovars are deeply unhappy...and they're ready for something new and they're ready to give a mandate -- perhaps not an overwhelming mandate but a mandate nevertheless -- to an untested party to form the government.'
Kosovo's Democracy Got A Shot In The Arm
Kosovo is still battling for international recognition in some quarters -- more than 110 states recognize its sovereignty but notable holdouts include Russia, China, and Spain along with four other EU states - and it lies in a region where democratic and transparent government institutions are young.
The 44 percent turnout for the parliamentary elections may seem lackluster, but it marks an increase from 41 percent in the previous inconclusive elections of 2017.
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