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Nagip Arifi’s Democratic Party seeks to break tradition of elections as ethnic headcounts - but whether voters in the polarised border region are ready remains open to question.
Nagip Arifi, president of the Democratic Party, the newest party on the scene in ethnically mixed southern Serbia, is making waves.
The first local Albanian leader to call on local Serbs to vote for him, he is also the local Albanian politician to have distanced himself from traditional Albanian nationalism, saying that economic development and investment are his priorities.
Looking ahead to the local elections expected in spring 2012, he said recently: “We expect enough votes to have a main say in Bujanovac after the elections, and to achieve that goal we expect votes from local Serbs as well.”
Arifi was the first-ever ethnic Albanian mayor of Bujanovac, the main town in South Serbia, from 2002 and 2008.
He founded the Democratic Party last summer together with other dissatisfied members of the Party for Democratic Action.
The dominant party in the region, it is led by Riza Halimi, the only ethnic Albanian MP in the Serbian parliament.
However, while Arifi espouses a new brand of politics based on economics rather than ethnic identity, most other Albanian and Serbian politicians believe local voters will vote in the next elections as they did in the last one - on the basis of nationality.
Boban Pavlovic, head of the Bujanovac branch of Serbia’s ruling Democratic Party, led by Serbian President Boris Tadic, sees Arifi’s goal of appealing to voters on both sides of the ethnic divide as unrealistic.
“Although there is no ethnic tension today [in the region], it is unrealistic to expect Serbs to vote for Albanians and vice versa,” he said, noting that in the territory of the municipality, “there are only two multiethnic areas.
“We don’t expect anyone in a village with solely Serb population to vote for an Albanian party and the same goes when it comes to purely Albanian villages,” he added.
Skender Destani, leader of the Democratic Union of the Valley, another local ethnic Albanian party, agrees.
The people of this region, and of the whole of Serbia, remain polarised on the basis of nationality, he maintains.
“There are still frustrations left over from the armed conflicts in the former Yugoslavia and each side still blames the other and avoids responsibility,” he said.
“Until responsibility [for the former bloodshed] is established, any party would have difficulty profiling itself as a civil party,” Destani said.
Recent surveys and straw polls back this assertion. One conducted by the Albanian-language Internet agency Presheva.com from Presevo on its Facebook page in December showed that 85 per cent of the 300 visitors who voted said they thought people in southern Serbia would still vote on the basis of nationality.
“Big national topics are still the main arguments for the majority of politicians when they address citizens. Everyone prefers to deal with high politics instead of taking care of the everyday, existential problems of the people,” Driton Saliu, the agency owner, said.
In southern Serbia, which is still recovering from an armed conflict in 2000 and 2001 between the security forces and Albanian insurgents in the Liberation Army of Presevo, Medvedja and Bujanovac, voters have so far always balloted on the basis of ethnic allegiance.
In the local assembly of Bujanovac, which has 41 seats, the last elections in 2008 saw three Albanian parties win 23 mandates, while nine Serbian parties took another 17. One went to the Roma community.
In September 2010, after a period of political stalemate and confrontation on the town council, the governing Albanian parties agreed to share power with representatives of Serbian parties.
According to data from election rolls in previous elections, 35,670 citizens have the right to vote in Bujanovac, of whom 19,500 are Albanians and 12,600 are Serbs.
But a large number of local Albanian residents now live and work far away in Western Europe, so on the average only about 12,000 people vote in elections.
In Presevo, where ethnic Albanians make up 95 per cent of the population, and in Medvedja, where the majority are Serbs, the situation is more clear-cut when it comes to elections.
In the three multiethnic municipalities as a whole, no less than 12 parties and groups of citizens compete for the ethnic Albanian vote.
On the other side, there is no autochthonous Serb party, beside several citizens groups. Serbs in South Serbia vote for national parties headquartered in Belgrade.
While the dice seem loaded against Nagip Arifi, he believes that his party is gaining momentum, noting that 1,500 people have joined his party since the summer.
“If we know the Albanian mentality, which is that the family votes the way its patriarch votes, we can expect around 6,000 votes at the next elections, which would secure us the deciding say in forming the authority [in Bujanovac],” Arifi predicted.
He believes no single party in Bujanovac will be able to form the local authority by itself, and says his party will not be guided by ethnic considerations when it comes to seeking potential partners.
“We will only cooperate with parties that want to work on strengthening the economy and attracting investment,” Arifi said.
Nedxat Behluli, head of the party’s PR, says the party would be ready to leave some ethnic Albanian parties sitting in the opposition, which would be a precedent in Bujanovac.
The party would work actively to stop the political domination of the town by the Party for Democratic Action, led by Halimi, he added.
“Our goal is, beside economic progress, to remove Halimi from the scene after two decades of being in power or close to it,” Behljulji, owner of the local Spektri television station, said.
“We’re not interested in high politics and we leave this to Belgrade and Pristina,” he added.
“We will work on improving local economic conditions and we are ready to cooperate with everyone, including Serbs, Belgrade and the international community,” Behluli continued.
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