Front-runner Hashim Thaci pledged independence for Kosovo today as the breakaway province voted for a new parliament in an election shunned by Serbs bitterly opposed to its secession.
Turnout was also weak among Albanians, who have grown suspicious of political parties and unfulfilled promises of jobs and economic development. By 1pm, 24 per cent of the 1.5 million eligible voters had cast ballots.
"These elections are not about Kosovo's status," Mr Thaci, a former guerrilla fighter who is favourite to become the new prime minister, said after casting his ballot. "We will declare independence immediately after December 10th."
That is the date for a report by Russian, United States and European Union mediators on last-ditch talks in search of a compromise between Serbia and Kosovo's 90 percent ethnic Albanian majority.
There is still no glimmer of a deal, with two negotiating sessions set for Brussels and Vienna in the coming week.
The OSCE said turnout among Kosovo's small Serb minority was predictably minimal, after Serb leaders in Belgrade warned voters not to legitimise a "secessionist" parliament. Kosovo Prime Minister Agim Ceku, a former guerrilla commander who does not have a party of his own, is stepping down.
Mr Thaci, who leads the Democratic Party of Kosovo, is a narrow favourite to succeed him, according to opinion polls.
Whatever the result, all four main parties have committed to unilaterally declare an independent republic. Diplomats expect it to come within weeks, not days, of the mediators' report, despite Mr Thaci's rhetoric.
If he wins, Mr Thaci would still have to form a coalition, possibly with the Democratic League of Kosovo of the late independence icon Ibrahim Rugova. They would hope to create a new government before the mediators hand in their report.
Even then, Kosovo has promised its Western backers in Washington and Brussels that it will coordinate its declaration with the major powers from whom it expects quick recognition.
In a parting admonition to Kosovo's often squabbling politicians, Minister Ceku warned they would inflict "serious damage" on the historic independence process if they spent weeks haggling instead of getting the new government ready for action.
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