Riot police and protesters clashed in Kosovo as MPs began voting on a new president Friday, after opposition members were forcibly removed following tear gas protests in parliament.
Foreign Minister and former premier Hashim Thaci is the frontrunner to become Kosovo\’s head of state, who is chosen by the parliament in the capital Pristina, but he failed to secure enough support in the first round of voting on Friday afternoon.
The election began after opposition MPs, who are determined to scupper the vote and force an early election, released tear gas in the legislature — despite heavy security as they entered.
Some opposition members were then forcibly removed and banned from the vote, while others refused to take part.
About 1,000 anti-government demonstrators meanwhile rallied outside the parliament chanting "Out", "Hashim out", but riot police eventually pushed them back and fired tear gas at protesters who lobbed Molotov cocktails.
Kosovo, which broke away from Serbia eight years ago, has faced a political crisis for several months, with opposition MPs almost paralysing the work of parliament with regular tear gas demonstrations.
Protesters on the streets have also called for the government to step down and hold early elections, amid widespread frustration over alleged high-level corruption, around 40 percent unemployment and a government deal with Serbia.
The former political leader of the pro-independence Kosovo Liberation Army which fought Serbia in the late 1990s, Thaci has also been accused of involvement in organised crime and organ trafficking during and after the war — charges he strongly denies.
"We continue to oppose the most disputed person in Kosovo being elected president. We will continue with our protests until the convening of new elections," opposition MP Albin Kurti told the crowd after he was banned from parliament.
In the first round of voting, Thaci only received support of 50 MPs, well short of the 80 votes — or two-thirds of the 120-seat parliament — required to become president.
A second round of voting later began, and if voting goes to a third round only a simple majority is needed.
Failing that, parliament must dissolve itself and organise snap elections within 45 days.
Hundreds of protesters had pitched tents in the centre of Pristina earlier this week, pledging to demonstrate around the clock in an attempt to oust the government and prevent Thaci\’s election.
"It would be a disaster for Kosovo if he is in power for another five years," said Agron Mustafa, a 29-year-old unemployed lawyer, saying Thaci "did nothing" to improve the economy as prime minister from 2008 to 2014.
Opposition leaders are particularly furious over a government deal with Belgrade to create an association giving greater powers to Kosovo\’s Serb minority — a move they fear will increase the influence of Serbia.
The deal was reached during talks brokered by the European Union to "normalise" relations between former foes Kosovo and Serbia, in which Thaci has taken a lead role.
Improved relations are a key requirement for both sides to join the EU, although Serbia and its ally Russia refuse to recognise Kosovo\’s sovereignty.
Along with Thaci, his close party associate Rafet Rama is running for the presidency, but he won just four votes in the first round.
The government and international observers, including the US ambassador to Kosovo, have repeatedly denounced the opposition\’s method of protest.
"We call on all politicians who want what\’s good for Kosovo to sit down and find a solution," said Samuel Zbogar, head of the EU\’s Office in Kosovo.