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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Conflict Background


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.