Elections in Bosnia and Herzegovina will once again be decided on the basis of divisive nationalist positioning, not future policy and prospects; ensuring that delay, deadlock and deflecting attention from the real issues will continue to characterise politics throughout the country.
By Ian Bancroft
On October 3rd, Bosnia-Herzegovina’s three million-plus voters will have the opportunity to decide which politicians will lead them through the next four years of challenging reforms. Many, however, will stay away; apathetic about the choice of political options and the capacity of politicians to deliver meaningful change. Though the high representative and EU special representative (EUSR), Valentin Inzko, has implored parties to address key public concerns, such as unemployment, corruption and European integration, the elections will once again be decided on the basis of divisive nationalist positioning, not future policy and prospects.
Such is the complexity of Bosnia-Herzegovina’s political system – a forced compromise that has proved extremely resistant to reform – elections will take place simultaneously at the state (for the presidency and house of representatives), entity (for the Republika Srpska presidency and national assembly, and the Federation’s house of representatives) and cantonal (in the Federation only) levels, respectively. Some 39 political parties will compete, including the newly-founded party of Oscar-winning film director, Danis Tanovic, ‘Nasa Stranka’ (‘Our Party’). However, it is the traditional players who are likely to retain a firm grip on power.
In the Republika Srpska, Milorad Dodik, the prime minister – who vehemently opposes further centralization of state competencies and has raised the possibility of secession, particularly following the International Court of Justice’s (ICJ) ruling on the legality of Kosovo’s declaration of independence – is set to become the entity’s president. With Dodik’s Alliance of Independent Social Democrats (SNSD) once again expected to be the largest party in the Republika Srpska national assembly and one of his close associates – possibly the current Republika Srpska minister of finance, Aleksandar Dzombic, or Gavrilo Bobar, a leading entrepreneur – set to be installed as prime minister, Dodik will be well-placed to stretch the powers of the office of the presidency, which has served a purely symbolic function under the current incumbent, Rajko Kuzmanovic.
The pre-election period has witnessed the usual spike in nationalist posturing. In mid-September, the Republika Srpska national assembly adopted a controversial law on state property, according to which the entity will assume ownership of all disputed state property within its territory. The move – which was branded as ‘unilateral’ by international officials – will impede Bosnia’s participation in NATO’s Membership Action Plan (MAP) and set back efforts to fulfil the ‘Five plus Two’ agenda set by the Peace Implementation Council as a pre-condition for the closure of the Office of the High Representative (OHR); which in itself has become a key requirement for progress towards EU membership. In addition, Dodik has called for the demarcation of the largely invisible inter-entity boundary line separating the Republika Srpska and the Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina; a move designed to demonstrate the entity’s permanence.
However, Dodik and the Republika Srpska do not exist in a vacuum. Indeed, they have derived a considerable amount of political oxygen from, in particular, Haris Silajdzic, the Bosniak member of the country’s tripartite presidency; often the most vigorous and vocal opponent of the prevailing entity structure. Though Silajdzic is likely to retain his post – fending off the respective challenges of Fahrudin Radoncic (owner of Dnevni Avaz, the most widely circulated daily newspaper, and a self-styled Berlusconi-esque figure) and Bakir Izetbegovic (son of the late president, Alija Izetbegovic) – his Party for Bosnia-Herzegovina (SBiH) is expected to come second to the Party of Democratic Action (SDA), led by Sulejman Tihic, in elections to the state and Federation parliaments.
In the race for the Croat member of the presidency, the Croatian Democratic Union’s (HDZ) candidate, Borjana Kristo, is unlikely to pose a significant challenge to the incumbent, Zeljko Komsic of the Social Democratic Party (SDP); a divisive figure amongst the Croatian community due to his reliance on Bosniak support. This tension may serve to re-fuel Croat demands for more safeguards, including the idea of a third, predominantly Croat entity.
Though visa requirements for Bosnia-Herzegovina citizens entering the Schengen Area are set to be lifted following the elections, progress on other fronts – especially constitutional reform and Euro-Atlantic integration – is likely to remain stalled.The formation of a new governing coalition will be a fraught affair, particularly as Dodik’s determination to prove the ineffectiveness and redundancy of state-level institutions provides little incentive for compromise and co-operation. With trust in – and indeed within and between – Bosnia’s political elites sorely lacking, delay, deadlock and deflecting attention from the real issues will continue to characterise politics throughout the country.
Ian Bancroft is the co-founder of TransConflict and a regular columnist for The Guardian on Western Balkan affairs.
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