Vjosa Osmani, the woman taking on Kosovo's 'nasty' politics to be PM

Sally MAIRS and Ismet HAJDARI
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Vjosa Osmani says she can rise above Kosovo's 'nasty' politics as she targets becoming the country's first female prime minister

Vjosa Osmani says she can rise above Kosovo's 'nasty' politics as she targets becoming the country's first female prime minister (AFP Photo/Armend NIMANI)

Pristina (AFP) - Looking back to her childhood in conflict-wracked Kosovo, Vjosa Osmani remembers listening quietly as dozens of men gathered in her father's living room to discuss the political future of the breakaway Serbian province.

Two decades later, the 38-year-old is determined to be the one leading the meetings as she bids to become Kosovo's first female Prime Minister in October 6 elections.

It would be a radical change in a patriarchal society where men reign supreme in politics, business and often in the home.

But Osmani says her gender is an asset.

"I can do it precisely because I am a woman," she told AFP from the headquarters of her party, the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK).

The curly-haired law professor-turned-MP is hoping to ride a wave of disappointment in the men who have mired the young democracy in corruption and poverty since its 2008 independence.

The former province is still led by the ethnic-Albanian guerillas who fought Serbia during the 1998-99 war and for whom gender equality is not a priority.

While a quota ensures women's representation in parliament, leadership positions overwhelmingly remain the playground of men.

Men run all of Kosovo's 38 municipalities, while the previous 21-member cabinet boasted a single female minister.

President Hashim Thaci also has only one woman in his cadre of political advisors.

While parliament did appoint a female president, Atifete Jahjaga, in 2011, the people have never elected a woman to lead the government.

- 'Nasty' politics -

Osmani wants to upend those norms with the backing of one of Kosovo's largest and oldest parties, whose founder, Ibrahim Rugova, is considered the "father of the nation".

Analysts say she has a strong chance of taking home a large share of votes on election day.

Yet Kosovo's fractured political scene means no party is likely to win an absolute majority, leaving Osmani to forge a coalition to oust the establishment PDK, in power since 2007.

While her party once allied with the PDK, Osmani appears to be ruling that out under her watch.

"We will remove from power those who have strangled Kosovo," she told supporters during a campaign event on Tuesday night in western Pec.

"On October 6, we will send the PDK and its corrupt partners into a long opposition."

After studying international law in the US and working as a professor, Osmani became a lawmaker in 2011, coming face to face with what she describes as Kosovo's "nasty" political scene.

That unpleasant nature was on display recently when two male MPs sparred in a TV debate.

After one politician made disparaging comments about the other's wife, his opponent retorted by calling him the female version of his name, saying "you look a bit like a woman".

After the programme, the men reportedly came to blows.

Osmani says she encounters sexism out campaigning, but interprets attacks on her gender as a sign of their "insecurity".

"My political opponents are afraid of the big change we will bring" she said at a recent rally.

- 'Believe' -

Apparently underestimated by her party's leaders in the last election in 2017, Osmani ranked 81st on the LDK's candidate list in that poll.

But after earning the second-highest number of votes, she was chosen to lead the party this year under the slogan of "Beso" -- Albanian for "Believe".

Ariana Qosaj-Mustafa, the director of the Kosovo Women's Network, says it is difficult to predict how the electorate will respond.

According to a recent National Democratic Institute (NDI) poll, more than a third of Kosovars believe that "people are not ready to elect women".

Yet while conservative voters may be turned off, Osmani "could take a lot of female votes," said Qosaj-Mustafa.

The party also hopes she can appeal to Kosovar youth, who make up nearly half the population and who are hardest hit by high unemployment.

Berat Uka, a 22-year-old law student, worries how Osmani will fair "against sharks on the political scene", but says he is "fed up with incompetent men who have been in the office so far".

- Families -

On the campaign stump, Osmani prefers to talk about "families" instead of focusing too closely on women's rights.

Yet some would like to see her champion women's needs more directly in a society where domestic violence is a serious scourge and where women struggle for equality on issues like wages and property rights.

Shqipe Gjocaj, a feminist activist and writer, said it was not enough to "simply have a woman running for Prime Minister".

"Kosovo women are suffering and dying from violence, they have no access to proper medical care, they are unemployed, isolated and poor," she told AFP.

"We should ask tough questions" on how Osamani will tackle these challenges, said Gjocaj.