PRISTINA -- Polling stations have opened in Kosovo as citizens cast ballots to decide mayoral runoff races in 21 of 28 municipalities, including the capital, Pristina, in the second round of voting in the Balkans' youngest independent state.
The second round on November 14, which follows the October 17 first round, is considered a key test for Kosovo’s governing Vetevendosje (Self-Determination) Movement and its prime minister, Albin Kurti.
Polls opened at 7 a.m.local time at some 575 voting stations and are expected to remain open for 12 hours in this ethnic-Albanian majority country of 1.85 million people.
About 1.2 million people are eligible to vote, choosing between the two mayoral candidates who finished with the highest vote totals in the first round.
The Vetevendosje Movement won more than 50 percent of the vote during parliamentary elections in February, but it did not secure any mayoral position in the first round.
The party will compete in 12 municipalities in the second round.
Vetevendosje leader Kurti, a 46-year-old Yugoslav-era student leader, has repeatedly championed Albanian nationalism, greater "reciprocity" in relations with neighbor Serbia, and a more urgent approach to Pristina's efforts to join international institutions.
Kurti has vowed that officials would continue cracking down on the smuggling of goods -- such as beverages, food, and cigarettes -- from Serbia into Kosovo.
The most closely watched race is in Pristina between the Vetevendosje candidate, former Health Minister Arben Vitia, and British-educated architect Perparim Rama, who is running with the opposition Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK) party.
In the 2017 local elections, Vetevendosje won the capital.
The Serbian List, which is close to the Serbian leadership in Belgrade, won nine out of 10 Serb-majority mayoral races in the first round, while the Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK) won four races, the Alliance for the Future of Kosovo (AAK) two, and the Democratic League of Kosovo two.
Western-backed Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008 in a move that is still not recognized by Belgrade or Moscow but has been acknowledged by around 110 countries, including the United States and most of the European Union.
Serbia and Kosovo fought a war in 1998-1999 that ended when NATO bombed Serbian forces.
The elections are taking place under conditions designed to help fight the spread of COVID-19, with masks and the maintaining of physical distance mandated.
Kosovo has registered a relatively low number of COVID-19 cases in recent weeks compared with some regional counterparts.
On November 13, seven new cases and one death were registered. Since the beginning of the pandemic, a total of 160,934 cases have been registered, along with 2,980 deaths.
About 41 percent of population has received either the Pfizer or AstraZeneca vaccine.