The end of the Lagumdzija-Komsic Affair, and the future of the Federation

Manipulation of electoral loopholes and political disenfranchising of an entire ethnic group – Bosnia’s Croats – has further complicated efforts to reconcile the collective rights of ethnic groups with the rights of the individual.

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By Gordon N. Bardos

For most of the past century, the fundamental challenge confronting attempts to create democratic multiethnic states in southeastern Europe has been reconciling the collective rights of ethnic groups with the rights of the individual. Although the tensions between these two sets of rights exist in all democratic systems (as seen in the special provisions protecting racial, gender, or sexual minorities in the US), Balkan political culture has as a result of centuries of political development placed much more emphasis on collective group rights than states and societies in Western Europe or the US. One of the defining features of both Ottoman and Habsburg rule in southeastern Europe, for instance, was the extent to which they granted collective, corporate group rights to the various peoples in their respective empires.

The Titoist system took this emphasis on collective group rights a step further by institutionalizing the principle that ethnic groups have equal rights regardless of differences in size; thus, Slovenia, with an approximate population of two million people, had an equal political voice in the Yugoslav federation with that of Serbia, with a population of approximately eight million. Moreover, an explicit assumption of the Titoist system was that republics (and in most cases their respective ethnic groups) had the right to choose their own leaderships.

In the late 1980s, Slobodan Milosevic’s attempt to rewrite the rules of Tito’s system by imposing the leaders of his choice in Kosovo, Montenegro and Vojvodina upset the fragile equilibrium on which Yugoslavia’s stability rested. Ultimately this proved to be one of the final (albeit not the only) nails in Yugoslavia’s coffin. Such attempts by one ethnic group to impose the political leadership of its choice on another ethnic group assumed perhaps its most absurd proportions at the Rambouillet Conference in 1999, to which Milosevic sent a “multiethnic delegation” of Albanians, Roma, Serbs and others. Such ethnic tokenism, of course, fooled no one, as the Albanian members of Milosevic’s delegation had no legitimacy amongst their co-nationals from Kosovo.

Regrettably, much of this experience and history has been forgotten in Bosnia in recent years. Starting around 2006, the allegedly “non-national” but in reality overwhelmingly Bosniac Social Democratic Party of BiH began promoting token non-Bosniacs to positions of power, using Bosniac votes to elect their own cadres to positions reserved for representatives of Bosnia’s other constituent groups.

The most blatant example of such manipulation of electoral loopholes and political disenfranchising of an entire ethnic group came with the 2010 election of Zeljko Komsic as the Croat member of Bosnia’s joint state presidency. Yet a glance at the 2010 election results reveals some interesting anomalies, the most important being the fact that Komsic received relatively few votes where there were lots of Croats, but lots of votes where there were relatively few Croats. To take but a few examples:

  • In the western Herzegovina municipality of Siroki Brijeg, the two HDZ parties received 10,772 votes. Komsic received 105.
  • In the western Herzegovina municipality of Posusje, the two HDZ parties received 5983 votes. Komsic received 99.
  • In the western Herzegovina municipality of Grude, the two HDZ parties received 4,466 votes. Komsic received 128.

Determining actual Croat support for Komsic outside of the relatively homogeneous Croat areas of western Herzegovina is more difficult given the fact that no reliable census has been carried out in Bosnia since 1991. However, the Catholic Church has been keeping its own records of the number of Croats/Catholics in Bosnia, and when combined with estimates about the average voting age population in Bosnia and voter turnout provided by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, a rough approximation can be made of the number of Croat votes around the country. The estimates are based on the following calculation:

Catholic/Croat Population (CP) x Voting Age Population (VAP) x Voting Age Population Turnout (VAPT)

Where CP = 455,032, VAP = 65.1%, and VAPT = 58.75%. The sum of this figure can then be compared to the official elections results as published by Bosnia’s Central Election Commission (CEC).

Using this calculation, a review of the 2010 election results reveals that the above mentioned anomaly held true throughout the federation:

  • In the four Sarajevo municipalities of Stari Grad, Centar, Novi Grad, and Novo Sarajevo, the calculation predicts 4,718 potential Croat voters.  The two HDZ parties received 5,759 votes. Komsic received 57,639.
    • In Zivinice municipality, the calculation predicts 956 Croat voters. The two HDZ parties received 858 votes. Komsic received 12,256.
    • In Sanski Most, the calculation predicts 110 Croat votes. The two HDZ parties received 105 votes. Komsic received 3,986.
    • In Lukavac, the calculation predicts 765 Croat votes. The two HDZ parties received 670. Komsic received 10,775.

The same pattern holds true around the federation, with Komsic receiving few votes in areas with large Croat populations but large numbers of votes in areas with few Croats. A number of things can of course effect the calculation, such as the fact that Croat voter turnout usually is somewhat higher than the BiH average; that the Catholic Church’s survey may not encompass Croats who are atheists or non-observant (some estimates of Bosnia’s Croat population suggest there may be 50-100,000 more Croats in BiH than the church has recorded); or that in some places where young families have left in exceptionally high numbers the percentage of the voting age population might be exceptionally high. Finally, Croat votes also went to other candidates; Komsic did of course receive some small percentage of Croat votes, as did some other candidates, most notably Jerko Ivankovic-Lijanovic (although in the latter case it is difficult to determine how many votes came from Bosniacs and how many from Croats; moreover, the Lijanovic party has been plagued by a number of vote-buying scandals).

Over the past several years, HDZ officials have consistently held that they received approximately 90-95% of the Croat vote in BiH, yet were denied entry into the government. The above calculation suggests that they are not far off in their claims. For instance, even assuming that there are 100,000 more Croats in Bosnia that the Church estimates, the calculation shows that the two HDZ parties still received over 80 percent of the Croat vote. This then begs the question of whether it was politically wise or morally legitimate to exclude them from power.

Not surprisingly, the result of such obvious manipulation of electoral procedures has been the breakdown of the federation over the past two-plus years. Five months after the October 2010 elections, Lagumdzija formed a federation government without the two HDZ parties, which the CEC ruled was unconstitutional, whereupon the Office of the High Representative (OHR) overruled the CEC’s decision and decided to impose the new government. Many cantons in the federation refused to form governments for more than a year after the elections in protest. Even this unconstitutional governing coalition in the federation fell apart in mid-2012, with Lagumdzija this time abandoning his coalition with the SDA in favor of again trying to form a coalition with the two HDZ parties. Komsic in the meantime resigned from the SDP (twice). In October 2012 federation voters voiced their disapproval of Lagumdzija’s machinations by inflicting a significant loss on the SDP in BiH’s local elections, and the SDA replaced the SDP as the leading Bosniac party.

Such multi-dimensional chaos in the federation (i.e., between the leading Croat parties vis-à-vis the Bosniac parties, and between the leading Bosniac parties themselves) continues until today. On 12 February 2013, the federation government fell yet again after losing a no-confidence vote in the federation’s House of Representatives.

Unfortunately, the almost two and a half years lost in this political maneuvering has cost Bosnia substantially. Efforts to implement the crucial Sejdic-Finci ruling has been delayed for months because of the inability of political actors in the federation to agree on how to implement the decision (in October 2012 Sejdic and Finci endorsed a proposal on how to resolve the issue in the RS). Meanwhile, once Croatia joins the EU mid-year Zagreb is likely to stand up for the Bosnian Croat position much more forcefully. Amazingly, how out of touch with reality the international community has become in Bosnia can be seen in the fact that it more common to see Bosniac intellectuals and even SDA officials criticize the political disenfranchisement of one of Bosnia’s constituent peoples than it has been to see someone from the OHR do so.

Whether the latest attempt to “reform the federation” announced by the US ambassador to Sarajevo in January can resolve the perennial Balkan democratic dilemma of reconciling collective ethnic group rights with individual rights remains to be seen. The experience of the past few years – e.g., the failed 2006 “April Package” of constitutional reforms, the failed Butmir talks in 2009, etc. – suggests the international community has run out of the ideas, the energy, and the power to do anything constructive in BiH anymore. What should be clear, however, is that after all the problems of the last two years, Bosnia can ill-afford yet another attempt by international bureaucrats to indulge their fantasies about nation-building and identity-construction in the Balkans. Any true resolution of these problems must be authentically Bosnian, and represent genuine compromise amongst Bosnia’s peoples respecting each group’s legitimate interests.

Gordon N. Bardos is a Balkans politics and security expert based in New York.

7 Responses

  1. That’s all good and well, and I agree that given the parameters of how the present electoral system is supposed to work, Croats are being marginalized. However, the two bigger dimensions of this fact continue to be missing in this (and all similar) analyses.

    One, if BiH’s problem (and it is) to a largely extent is the privileging of collective over individual rights, why is the focus of outrage on the corruption of the most ethno-chauvinist and collectivist system that has existed in the region, rather than on this system’s existence itself? The problem isn’t (really) that Bosniaks (presumably) are abusing a loophole in Dayton, it’s Dayton itself.

    And secondly, let’s think about this complaint more closely: who is Zeljko Komsic? Here is a man who, for all his flaws, has consistently advocated for a civic, progressive, liberal-democratic vision of BiH. This is the man who Bosniaks (again, I say, presumably) have been giving their vote(s) to. This is the man now who, free of the SDP, has announced the formation of his social-democratic/civic party. So, all things being equal, we’re supposed to be outraged that a significant portion of the BiH population is supporting a social democrat…over the HDZ nationalists?!

    All of which is to say, I appreciate the sentiment. Every vote in BiH should be counted and respected. But the way to ensure that is not by pretending Dayton is some paradigm of democratic will, but rather recognizing it as the segregationist trap that it is. I don’t understand how anyone, Mr. Brados, Brussels or Washington or anyone else thinks progress will be made in BiH until this fact is recognized.

  2. MP

    I am almost certain that the first time time Komsic ran for presidency he was entirely elected by BIH Croats as HDZ had split into two factions both gaining very little votes and he got votes within a acceptable BIH Croat numerical paramter. His popularity grew when liberal people in the Bosniak/Serb and others population within the FBIH saw that he was for a civil democratic state and the second time around he had votes from all ethnic groups within that entity. It should be recognized that he got more votes than the Bosniak presidency member which shows that he couldnt have been handpicked as nobody in Dayton Bosnia would give another person votes, appointment yes which we see with Vljaki in RS but votes definitely no. People actually had to get over the ethnic barrier in order to elect Komsic making him in many ways the first true representative of BIH.

    Now obviously this kind of result isnt liked by nationalist elements like the HDZ whom if you listen seem to be only ones that have a right to what a true BIH Croat is and brand Komsic a fake BIH Croat which is awefully convenient to do as HDZ has been progressively losing votes. HDZ would like to give the appearance that BIH Croats think and feel only in one way and only want ethnic segregation. If BIH Croats were so single minded than HDZ wouldnt have split into two. No, the way control is exercised in this Daytonian ethnic oligarchy is through fear and intimidation. Surprisngly the author has missed this point along with the fact that Dragan Covic is probably one of the most corrupt politician and the highest numbered politician with corruption charges against him. The Dayton system rewards the wicked and the corrupt with high level positions and a easy access to money at the expensive of the people.

    The international community is extremely out of touch with problem in BIH that I do agree with the author. However the reason is because the west is seeking the easy way out by irrationally maintaing that the Dayton system structure to remain in any further reform. Thus making reform a a circular argument as you arent reforming anything if you are maintaining the problem. Looking at the Dayton system even a outsider can see that there really isnt anything democratic about a system that advocates segregated ballots and a segregated society. A system that if you vote for person based on his program and not his ethnicity you are considered illegitimate? so we in BIH are suppose be the only part of the human race that human rights shouldn’t be applied to? I think both the author and the international community should stop being hypocrites and either allow BIH to become a fully functioning liberal democracy or leave BIH and take Dayton with them as it was never ratified by the parliament of RBIH but forced on the citizens of RBIH at gunpoint in very colonial fashion.

  3. SR

    What a load of rubbish. These so-called “experts” keep trying to make arguments and apply solutions to Bosnia that would be deemed ridiculous and outrageous if they tried to push them in their own native countries.

    They keep trying to reduce Bosnia to a tribal confederation of 3 tribes. According to them these three tribes ought to hold internal elections and then delegate their tribal leaders to the confederate-tribal council where each tribe naturally would have full veto power.

    How do you think they would do applying that logic to other places? United States for example? An exclusive black party, a latino party, methodist party, catholic party etc… Walk into a polling place, pull out your racial/national ID card, identify yourself and only then be handed a racially or nationally appropriate voting form and fill it out to choose your tribal leaders to be sent to tribal Senate where each could block a law if it doesn’t suit them.
    Ridiculous right? So why try pushing this onto Bosnia!?

    Bosnia is a parliamentary democracy with an entire range of protective mechanisms for minorities. More so in fact then any other country in the world. Yet you want to even further push these inefficient solutions as if there isn’t already enough of blockades by minority parties abusing national veto powers for thing nowhere near related to “national vital interests”.

    You neatly break down the numbers using Komsic as an example. Yet you fail to make clear that none of it matters. Why? Because both the constitution and the election law call for 2 presidency members to be elected out of the Federation entity, a Bosniak and a Bosnian Croat. It DOES NOT say ANYWHERE that these people must be elected by Bosniaks and Bosnian Croats exclusively. It doesn’t because it CAN NOT. There are no nationally exclusive voting districts. There is no genetic test to filter people at polling stations. It’s counter to very basic democratic postulates. It’s contrary to everything western democracy stands for. What you are tying to do to us impose a South African apartheid system.

  4. Pingback : The end of the Lagumdzija-Komsic Affair, and the future of the Federation – Transconflict | BiH DAYTON PROJECT

  5. Americro

    I applaud each of the three commentators below for their wordy tirades riddled with not so veiled ethnic hate and stereotyping in response to Mr. Bardos’s Fact Nuke, that do not address or counter a single fact or point made by Mr. Bardos (kudos to you Sir for calling a spade a spade).

    Their not so veiled defense of the manipulation of electoral loopholes and political disenfranchising of an entire ethnic group made me laugh quite hard.

    You made my day guys.

    Do you guys actually think after these two full years of bad faith and the manipulation of electoral loopholes and political disenfranchising of an entire ethnic group, an arbitrary revision of the Dayton Agreement which like it or not RB&H President Alija Izetbegovic signed, to the whim of Bosniak nationalists and AVNOJ B&H sociailst nationalist-unitarists, is going to do anything more but ensure B&H’s collapse?

    Bosniak nationalists and AVNOJ B&H etatist socialist nationalist-unitarists need to stop mimicking Milosevic and the Serbs in 1986-1990 Yugoslavia with their attempts at majoritizing other constituent nations in mini-Yugoslavia via electoral engineering and outright disenfranchisement – the result will be a collapse of mini-Yugo, just as the result of such was for big Yugo.

    The Serbs-in-Yugoslavia model posited by the three commentators below will only ensure B&H, a failing state, most definitely will fail, and epically.

    Trying to compare B&H to Serbia, Croatia, or even Montenegro is a fallacy, let alone to the US or France or any EU state.

    B&H is a very special historical and political-geographic case.

    Arguing that it ever was or is currently a liberal or social democracy like any EU state or Canada or the US is not just absurd, it is an exercise of obscene self-delusion bordering on clinical insanity.

    The farce is over. Give it up.

    That is the irony of the self-proclaimed defenders of B&H – their “defense” of B&H does more to destroy B&H than any irridentist speech by Dodik.

    Georgetown University Professor Dr. Charles Kupchan close to both Clintons and the Obama Administration, a Bard of the Balkans in the DC Beltway, is generating the new discourse for the new direction, MP’s worst nightmare – adopting the Swiss model: http://www.avaz.ba/vijesti/intervju/bih-treba-novo-uredjenje-ugledajte-se-na-svicarsku ; – )

    All three major groups need to agree (as do all minorities); allowing B&H citizens to create their own reorganized state means compromise and three way concessions with concessions by all three constituent nations to and from minorities as well.

    Kupchan is right: B&H needs to look at the Swiss model, as it offers a little bit for everyone, as Switzerland is very similar to B&H in terms of three major nations (though Switzlerland has three major nations with three neighboring “home” countries while B&H has three major nations with two neighboring “home” countries) with minorities.

  6. I agree with Mr. Bardos’ analysis and conclusion. Just, as a matter of factual consistency, I’d like to point out that after the 2010 general elections several cantons where two HDZ had considerable power held out on forming their government, thus stalling the formation of the Fedefation of BIH government. They did so hoping to get all B-Croat ministerial seats in the future government. SDP demanded that they, as a “multiethnic party” had a right to at least one B-Croat ministerial seat. When it became obvious that neither side would budge, SDP moved to form the FBIH government even without all cantons having established their parliaments and governments. The CEC reacted to SDP’s move declaring the FBIH government illegitimate. And then, to make the matters worse, and to render itself completely irrelevant in the future, OHR overturned the CEC ruling and allowed SDP to move forward without the HDZs. OHR probably assessed that the “platform” coalition (SDP, SDA, two smaller B-Croat parties) would be stable and reform-oriented, so the ends would justify the means. It was a poor assessment as the “Platform” fell apart. This latest OHR’s blunder reminds us that it is a high time that this institution be closed for good, and the ownership of all things political in Bosnia returned to local actors – for better or worse.

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