PRISTINA, Kosovo – Former rebel leader Hashim Thaci claimed a third term as prime minister of Kosovo on Sunday after official preliminary results gave him the lead in a snap parliamentary election that also saw minority Serbs casting votes for the 120-seat assembly despite their rejection of Kosovo's claim to statehood.
Official preliminary results gave Thaci's Democratic Party of Kosovo a lead of three percentage points over the opposition Democratic League of Kosovo with over 70 percent of the ballots counted. The hardline ethnic Albanian Self-determination movement was in third place, it's best showing ever in a general election.
The vote was seen as important for European Union efforts toward stabilizing the Balkan flashpoint 15 years after its independence war from Serbia.
Sunday's election was called after parliament became deadlocked over key issues, including formation of Kosovo's armed forces.
Just over 43 percent of Kosovo's 1.7 million voters cast ballots, state election authorities said after polls closed.
"Tomorrow morning we continue with our work," Thaci told supporters gathered in the capital Pristina. "Tomorrow we follow the will of the people that was expressed today."
Thaci's strong showing comes despite allegations of government corruption, botched privatization deals and high-profile cases against his top aides suspected by European Union prosecutors in Kosovo of committing war crimes.
Minority Serb participation in the vote was vital for EU-brokered talks to help Kosovo normalize its ties with Serbia.
Hundreds of Serbs cast ballots, but turnout in Serb-held areas was still lower than the overall turnout. No incidents were reported, unlike during the previous two elections.
"I want to believe in what the government of Serbia is doing," 39-year-old Lazar Peric said after casting his ballot in the northern town of Zvecan.
Belgrade has rejected Kosovo's 2008 declaration of independence from Serbia, but signed an agreement with Kosovo last year to help advance Serbia's EU membership bid. Kosovo's Serbs have 10 reserved seats in the assembly regardless of participation, but the vote was seen by many as a validation of Kosovo's secession from Serbia.
Among Kosovo's dominant ethnic Albanian population, issues such as the economy topped the agenda.
Lis Balaj, a 23-year-old economy student, said that "whoever comes to power, they should first fight corruption and unemployment."
About 100 prosecutors and judges have been mobilized to impose strict penalties in cases of vote-rigging.
Kosovo's independence war in 1998-99 left some 10,000 people dead. The war ended after NATO forces bombed Serbia to stop the onslaught.
Some 100 countries have recognized Kosovo's independence, including the United States and most EU nations, but not Russia and China.
Jovana Gec in Belgrade, Serbia, and Zvezdan Djukanovic, in Mitrovica, Kosovo, contributed to this report.