PRISTINA, Serbia, Nov 18 (Reuters) Opposition Democratic Party leader Hashim Thaci claimed victory in a parliamentary election, making him the man likely to lead the breakaway province to independence from Serbia.
''With our victory today begins the new century,'' Thaci told cheering supporters, six hours after polls closed yesterday with partial results pointing to a narrow majority that will leave him looking for coalition partners in order to form a government.
His PDK party, formed from the Kosovo Liberation Army which rebelled against Serbia in 1998, captured roughly 35 per cent of the vote in a ballot marred by record low turnout and a Serb boycott to protest against Albanian independence plans.
In second place was the long-dominant Democratic League of Kosovo with around 22 per cent, ahead of four other ethnic Albanian parties.
All back a quick move to independence from Serbia for the breakaway province, which has been under United Nations rule and NATO protection since 1999.
But in a sign that many voters see little difference in their ability to improve daily life beyond a declaration of statehood, less than half the electorate of some 1.5 million turned out to vote, the lowest showing since the 1998-99 war.
''This is not about independence. Turnout was low because people are depressed. This is about the economic situation -- no water, no electricity, no jobs,'' said analyst Berat Buzhala of the daily Express.
UN administrator Joachim Ruecker and election commission chief Mazllum Baraliu said turnout was likely to be ''between 40 and 45 per cent''.
ECONOMIC CRISIS The vote was also marred by an overwhelming boycott by the Serb minority, under orders from Belgrade not to legitimise a parliament threatening to declare independence within weeks.
''These elections are not about Kosovo's status,'' said Thaci, who is now clear favourite to become Kosovo's new premier. ''We will declare independence immediately after December 10.'' That is the date for a report by Russian, United States and European Union mediators on efforts to find a compromise between Serbia and Kosovo's 90 per cent ethnic Albanian majority.
There is still no glimmer of a deal. Two negotiating sessions are set for Brussels and Vienna in the coming week.
Political analyst Agron Bajrami said low Albanian turnout suggested ''people have grown tired over the past eight years with the lack of status or progress in their everyday lives''.
''Most of the parties ... have not convinced voters they have a solution to a situation most people consider a crisis.'' Kosovo Prime Minister Agim Ceku, a former guerrilla commander who is stepping down, warned political parties not to indulge in prolonged haggling over a coalition, but to concentrate on preparing for independence in the coming weeks.
Kosovo guerrillas took up arms in 1998 to end a decade of repression under late Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic, whose brutal response put almost 1 million civilians to flight and triggered NATO intervention in 1999 and an era of UN control.
The election for the 120-seat Kosovo parliament is the third since then. The campaign was dominated by party pledges to tackle 60 per cent unemployment, minimal foreign investment and rampant corruption. The bid for statehood was never in question.
REUTERS DKS BST0629