PRISTINA (Reuters) - Kosovo voted in an election on Sunday marked by voter frustration over poverty and corruption six years after seceding from Serbia, testing ex-guerrilla Hashim Thaci's bid for a third term as prime minister.
Some analysts expect the closest race since 46-year-old Thaci presided over Kosovo's Western-backed declaration of independence in 2008.
If he wins, Thaci will come under immediate pressure from the West to heed the findings of a war crimes investigation that threatens to ensnare his former comrades-in-arms. Frustration with Kosovo's progress is running high among many of its 1.8 million people, who rank among Europe's poorest. Around a third of the workforce is unemployed. Corruption is rife.
"This old class of politician has been around for 15 years and had plenty of time to profit," said Muhamet Maqastena, a trader in the capital, Pristina. "It's time for them to go and let the young, educated people govern us."
Fighting back, Thaci's government raised public sector wages, pensions and social welfare benefits in March by 25 percent. That directly affects 240,000 people, and even more indirectly.
He has promised to do the same every year if given a new four-year mandate.
"Our state is a new European state, a state that has great opportunities and I'm committed to making the most of them," Thaci said after voting in a Pristina school.
The next government will face a challenge within weeks when a special European Union task force is expected to issue the findings of an investigation into allegations Kosovo's guerrilla army harvested organs from Serb prisoners-of-war and sold them on the black market during a 1998-99 war.
The probe was launched following a 2011 report by Council of Europe rapporteur Dick Marty which pointed the finger at Thaci and other ex-rebels, including four high-ranking members of the prime minister's Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK) and candidates for parliament.
Thaci has dismissed the allegations as an outrage, a bid to tarnish the Kosovo Albanian fight for freedom that eventually won NATO air support.
The West wants a court set up abroad to hear the case, fearing a fair trial in Kosovo is impossible due to witness intimidation and a legal system riddled with graft. That will require changes to the law and constitution.
Thaci was one of the leaders of the Kosovo Liberation Army, which took up arms in the late 1990s to break free from the repressive rule of Serbia under then strongman Slobodan Milosevic.
NATO intervened in 1999 with 78 days of air strikes against Serbia, trying to halt the massacre and mass expulsion of Kosovo Albanians by Serbian forces waging a counter-insurgency. Kosovo became a ward of the United Nations in 1999.
It declared independence almost a decade later and has been recognised by more than 100 countries, but not Serbia or its big-power backer Russia, which is blocking the young state's accession to the United Nations.
Kosovo's economy is forecast to grow by at least three percent this year, driven by construction and cash sent home by Albanians working abroad.
Even then, the growth is insufficient to create enough jobs to absorb the thousands of Albanians entering the workforce every year in what is Europe's youngest society.
"It's time for change, and the only thing on my mind is finding a job," said Igballe Imeraj, a student. Opinion polls are not reliable, but suggest the PDK has a slight lead over the LDK, the Alliance for the Future of Kosovo (AAK) and the leftist, often anti-establishment Self-Determination party.
"The result of this election is the most uncertain of any election so far in Kosovo," political analyst Astrit Gashi said. Polls close at 7 p.m. (1700 GMT). Preliminary official results are expected by midnight (2200 GMT).
(Writing by Matt Robinson; Editing by Angus MacSwan)