PRISTINA, Kosovo – The coalition of former ethnic Albanian rebel commanders won the most votes Sunday in Kosovo's general election, which also saw a surge in popularity for a nationalist party, according to preliminary results.
The ex-rebels came in first with around 35 percent of the vote. The nationalist Self-Determination Movement was neck-and-neck with the coalition led by former Prime Minister Isa Mustafa, which had around 26 percent each after the counting of about 70 percent of the votes, according to Democracy in Action, a monitoring group.
No group can govern alone and coalitions will be likely.
The new Cabinet will have a tough job in resolving several thorny issues, including the border demarcation deal with Montenegro. The approval of another agreement with Serbia giving more rights to the ethnic Serb minority, and the continuation of fraught talks with Belgrade, which denies Kosovo's existence as a state, were also key concerns.
Ramush Haradinaj, whom the leading coalition has nominated to be prime minister, hailed Kosovars "for the trust given to the coalition," adding "these are the best elections ever held" in Kosovo.
"The victory is convincing and make us capable of operating further to create the country's government," he said.
The final results for the new 120-seat parliament are expected later in the week. Ethnic Serbs and other minorities have 20 out of 120 seats in the parliament.
Self-Determination Movement officials celebrated the results, which saw the party double its share of the vote. The party has been a disruptive force in the previous parliament and is the biggest opposition party to shun pre-election coalitions. The party's members and supporters released tear gas inside parliament and threw firebombs outside it to protest the contentious deals with Montenegro and Serbia.
The party has nominated its former leader, 42-year-old Albin Kurti, as a candidate for prime minister.
If elected, the party says it "is the only one which is going to fight corruption in a successful way," send former officials to jail, end the current talks with Serbia while seeking a closer union with neighboring Albania.
Kosovo's election authorities say that preliminary figures put turnout in the country's general election at 41.79 percent.
Central Election Commission head Valdete Daka says that "there have been no problems that would gravely damage the process."
The turnout is smaller than in the previous polls, for example in 2014, when it was 42.63 percent.
Kosovo is the only western Balkan country whose citizens need visas to enter the EU's Schengen zone. To join, Brussels insists Kosovo's parliament must first approve a border demarcation deal signed with Montenegro in 2015.
Opposition parties say that deal meant a loss of territory, over 8,000 hectares (20,000 acres), or less than 1 percent of Kosovo's land. The former Cabinet, international experts and the country's Western backers dispute that claim.
The Self-Determination Movement and others also oppose another deal signed in 2015 that gave more rights to the ethnic Serb minority.
A further issue is the prospect of former ethnic Albanian senior rebel commanders facing prosecution in the newly established war crimes court. The court in The Hague is expected to shortly issue indictments for crimes committed against civilians during and after the 1998-1999 war with Serbia.
Llazar Semini reported from Tirana, Albania.