PRISTINA, Kosovo - Prime Minister Hashim Thaci claimed victory Sunday in Kosovo's first general election since it seceded from Serbia, as an independent exit poll showed his Democratic Party of Kosovo 6 percentage points ahead of its nearest rival.
"This is a vote for a European Kosovo," Thaci said in an interview. "It is a referendum for good governance."
According to the exit poll, conducted by the Kosovo-based Gani Bobi Center, Thaci's party won 31 percent of the vote, with its former coalition partner, the Democratic League of Kosovo, trailing at 25 percent.
If the results are confirmed, Thaci will have the upper hand in forming a government. Official results are expected Monday.
A group led by a newcomer to politics, former student leader Albin Kurti, won 17 percent of the vote, according to the poll. Kurti advocates Kosovo's unification with Albania and opposes any normalization with Serbia. Talks are a condition for both Serbia and Kosovo to move closer to membership in the European Union, which Thaci supports.
Ethnic Serbs in Kosovo's north - where they form a majority - shunned the vote after a series of attacks aimed at intimidating potential voters.
Serbia had called for Kosovo's Serb minority to boycott the vote to protest the province's 2008 declaration of independence. The call deepened fears that Kosovo could split into an ethnic Serb north and an ethnic Albanian south, which would ruin efforts by the West to calm ethnic tensions in the region.
Some 1.6 million voters were eligible to vote and 29 political parties, coalitions and citizens' initiatives were seeking to enter Kosovo's 120-seat parliament. Ten of the seats were reserved for minority Serbs.
Thaci led the coalition government that declared Kosovo independent from Serbia. Since then, Kosovo has struggled to establish itself as an independent country.
So far 70 countries, including the United States and most EU nations, have recognized Kosovo as an independent state.
Despite a top U.N court ruling earlier this year that Kosovo's secession did not violate international law, a Serbian diplomatic offensive arguing that Kosovo's secession would inspire separatist moves around the world has discouraged some countries, notably Russia and China, from recognizing it.