As Bosnia & Herzegovina prepares to hold its eighth general election since the end of the bloody 1992-1995 war on October 7, the country seems more politically divided than ever.
There is little hope that such divisions will be eased by the election, in which ethnic parties are once again expected to take control of all institutions.
Even more worrying, among the most probable winners of the elections for the state-level tripartite presidency are two candidates with dreams of fundamentally changing the map of Bosnia — which if realised would have unclear and potentially deadly consequences.
The three members of the rotating presidency represent the three main ethnic groups in Bosnia: the 15 candidates include six candidates for the Bosniak seat, five for the Croat seat and four for the Serb seat. The most likely winners of the Serb and Croat seats are the current president of the Serb-dominated entity of Republika Srpska, Milorad Dodik, and Croatian Democratic Union of Bosnia & Herzegovina (HDZ BiH) leader Dragan Covic, while for the Bosniak member the outcome of the race is less clear.
Dodik has been known for his secessionist ideas for years and is under US sanctions after he repeatedly defied the state-level authorities. He has many times said that he will work for Republika Srpska’s secession, even if elected as a member of the state-level presidency. Covic has for years been pushing for the establishment of a third, Croat, entity and, if given more power, might try to do something in that direction.
Dodik and Covic have long supported each other’s ideas and could enter into an alliance and outvote the Bosniak member of the presidency. Analyst Jasmin Mujanovic warns that if Dodik and Covic both enter the presidency, the situation in Bosnia might worsen significantly.
“[I]f both [Dodik] and Covic end up in the state presidency, that’s a nightmare scenario for BiH,” he told bne IntelliNews.
The Dayton Peace accord that ended the 1992-1995 war established a complex set of institutions, hence the large number of elections taking place on October 7. Some 3.35mn Bosnians will vote for the state-level tripartite presidency, the state parliament and the assemblies in the two entities - the Muslim-Croat Federation and Republika Srpska — as well as for parliament in the autonomous Brcko District and for the presidency of Republika Srpska.
Over the years there have been various attempts to alter the balance between the various levels of government, in particular Dodik’s calls for secession from his power base in Republika Srpska. However, the current elections could result for the first time in the majority of those at the very top of Bosnian politics — two of the three holders of the state presidency — being in favour of fundamental changes.
Playing the ethnic card
In recent elections, politicians have successfully played on people’s fears and the strong bedrock of inter-ethnic rivalry in Bosnia, allowing the ethno-nationalist parties to prevail repeatedly. Although Bosnians will have to pick among 53 parties, 36 coalitions and 34 independent candidates, the most likely winners seem again to be the ethnic parties that have ruled the country for years: the Bosniak Party of Democratic Action (SDA) of Bakir Izetbegovic, Covic’s HDZ and Dodik’s Serb Alliance of Independent Social Democrats (SNSD). Izetbegovic, who is currently a member of the tripartite presidency, is serving his second term and cannot run for the post again.
Apart from these parties, the Social Democratic Party (SDP), which is the successor to the old League of Communists, could attract a more significant number of votes. Although it is theoretically multi-ethnic, the party focuses on the Bosniaks, which are a majority in the country.
Another strong party is the Democratic Front (DF), which has for some time been a member of the current ruling coalition at the state-level and in the Federation.
The Bosniak Alliance for Better Future (SBB) of businessman Fahrudin Radoncic, which was also part of the ruling coalition for some time, is among the parties that could gain significant support. Moreover, Radoncic is running for the tripartite presidency — a race he lost in the previous two elections to SDA leader Izetbegovic.
The newly-established Independent Block led by Senad Sepic theoretically could also gain enough votes to become a factor after October 7. The bloc was created mainly by former senior members of the SDA.
Meanwhile, at entity level political disagreements have led to potential chaos in the Federation as required changes to the electoral law were not adopted before the election, which could open the way for months of trouble when establishing the new House of Peoples, the upper chamber of the entity’s parliament.
In 2016, Bosnian Croat politicians filed a complaint with the constitutional court, arguing that the electoral mechanism to establish the House of Peoples in the Federation violates the constitution. The court partially accepted this appeal and gave Bosnia's state-level parliament six months to fix problematic parts of the election law. The changes have not so far been adopted, but according to some analysts the court’s decision has removed the legal basis for establishing the upper chamber. Without it, governments cannot be formed at either federal or state level, they claim.
Others consider there is no real legal issue, but that the uncertainty gives Covic’s HZD BiH an extra tool to use. “[T]he bigger issue is that if/when someone tries to form a government at the Federation or state level without the HDZ, as was attempted in 2010, Covic will once again go nuclear and attempt to obstruct every possible level and lever of government,” Mujanovic said.
“Either way, the post-October period is going to be extremely bumpy,” he added.
Meanwhile, the town of Mostar will again skip voting. Mostar is the only municipality in Bosnia where no local elections have been held since 2012, amid a dispute between Bosniaks and Croats over the composition of the city council.
In 2012, the constitutional court declared the electoral statute of the city unconstitutional and ordered the election system to be changed. The decision was taken by the court due to complaints by Croats on the city council that the electoral system gave Bosniaks the same number of councillors even though Croats are the majority group in the city. Mostar's city council is currently elected from six voting units, each of them electing the same number of councillors regardless of the number of voters in the unit.
Since 2012, the municipality has been administered without a municipal council. The two main parties in the city, which are also members of the ruling coalition — the SDA and the HDZ BiH — have been trying to find a compromise on reforming the statute of the city for several years.
Rivals unite against Dodik
In Republika Srpska, apart from Dodik’s SNSD, the Serbian Democratic Party will also race in the election. The party, which was founded by convicted war criminal Radovan Karadzic before the war, was the leading political force in Republika Srpska until 2006. Hoping to gain more votes, the party again formed a coalition for the October 7 election with the Party of Democratic Progress (PDP-RS), the National Democratic Movement (NDP) and several other parties under the name Savet za Promjene (SzP), which is a member of the current state-level coalition.
According to Mujanovic, Dodik’s election to the state-level presidency might actually lead to his position being weakened if the opposition wins in Republika Srpska.
“There is a good chance he could end up on the state presidency but the opposition bloc wins either the legislature and/or the entity presidency. If that happens, we’re looking at another period of escalating tensions between those two sides but also a period in which Dodik may be somewhat limited in his capacities to cause havoc,” Mujanovic said.
Dodik’s quest for secession has also been reined in by a change of stance from Moscow, the entity’s main international supporter. Dodik has somewhat changed his tone from his vocal calls for Republika Srpska to break away from Sarajevo following a recent visit to Bosnia by Russian Foreign Affairs Minister Sergey Lavrov.
At the end of September, Lavrov said that Russia supports the Dayton peace agreement, and believes there is no alternative, giving a clear signal that Dodik’s secessionist ideas are not welcome at the moment. Before that, Moscow was openly supporting Dodik, who is seen as highly dependent on President Vladimir Putin and operating with Moscow’s blessing.
If elected, I will steal
Bosnia’s elections come at a time when the country is struggling to get approval from the European Union for its candidate status. Although the country has stated many times that EU accession is among its top priorities, political disagreements have frozen the process several times. At the end of September, Bosnia failed to meet the deadline for answering additional questions from the EU for the questionnaire that will determine whether the country gets candidate status.
Meanwhile, the country’s latest deal with the International Monetary Fund is again put on hold as it failed to implement pledged reforms.
Some candidates have responded to this rather pessimistic environment with an unusual sense of humour. Evelin Bitic, MP candidate for the Movement Democratic Action (PDA), posted on Facebook that, if elected, he “will steal”, but will also give to the people. He also says that his election programme is honest.
“My programme is the most honest of all. I shall change everything from the ground, but first shall wait for my professional propaganda team makes up new talks (lies) for the people. I have hired professional liars following the example of some of our politicians,” he says in another post.
These statements have gained Bitic popularity among people, especially the young ones who do not feel motivated to vote. According to a recent poll published by Klix.ba, the turnout on October 7 will be below 50%, less than the 53.06% in the previous election in 2014.