Bosnia-Herzegovina and the failed revolution of the SDP (2010-2014) - part 1

Bosnia-Herzegovina and the failed revolution of the SDP (2010-2014) – part 1

Although in Bosnia and Herzegovina identitarian and ethnic parties are usually blamed for the chronic political deadlock of the country, a thorough examination of the past legislature (2010-2014) may suggest another interpretation. The deepest political crisis in the history of the country after the independence was the product of the Social Democratic Party of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s intention to “change the paradigm” behind the functioning of Bosnian institutions.

 Suggested Reading Conflict Background GCCT

By Rodolfo Toè 

In March 2011, six months after a landslide electoral victory, the secretary of the Social Democratic Party of Bosnia and Herzegovina (SDPBiH), Zlatko Lagumdžija, promised to “change the paradigm” used in the configuration of the government: “before, things were simple. It was about ethnic parties protecting their own backyard and we never had logical governments because of that.”[1]

At that moment, Lagumdžija had just formed the government in the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (Federacija Bosne i Hercegovine, FBiH), one of the two entities which constitute the country, without the support of the main Croat Bosnian parties (HDZBiH and HDZ1990). His tentative to “change the paradigm” in Bosnian politics eventually led to four years of political instability and growing radicalization in the political arena.

What happened in 2010 general elections, in many respects, was revolutionary. For the first time in the history of the country, a left wing party, which claimed to be multicultural and non-affiliated to any specific ethnic group, won the elections with a spectacular result. “This is the largest victory of the left in Bosnia and Herzegovina since 1945.”, claimed Lagumdžija.[2]

In 2010 the SDPBiH won 26,07% votes in the FBiH, becoming the largest party in that part of the country. At the national level, the Social-Democrats became the party with the biggest support, with a total of 284.435 votes (17.73%), and Željko Komšić, their candidate for the post of the Croat member of the Presidency, was the single most voted for politician in Bosnian history, gathering even more preferences (337,065) than his own party.[3]

However, behind the triumph of the Social-Democrats lay a manifest paradox in the same nature of the party and its identity: the SDPBiH claims to be multicultural when it comes to programs and the choice of candidates, but it collects most of its support from Bosniaks.

SDPBiH 2010 parliament of BiH

Although at the national level and in the FBiH the SDPBiH got the majority of votes, in most municipalities where Croats and Serbs constitute the majority of residents, the SDPBiH had very poor results. In Herzegovinian municipalities like Grude, Široki Brjeg, or Čitluk the Social-Democrats collected less than 5%.

The elections for the Cantonal assemblies show the same pattern: in the predominantly Croat Western Herzegovina Canton and in the Livno Canton the SDPBiH collected respectively a total of 287 (0,82%) and 1.377 votes (4,52%).

More impressively, in almost the entire territory of the Republic of Srpska the SDPBiH received less than 5% votes in the elections for the Parliament of BiH, with only four exceptions: Prijedor (6.79%), Kostajinica (5,57%), Vukosavlje (16,14%) and Doboj (6,82%), all places with a presence of Bosniak returnees.[4]

This problem becomes particularly evident when we consider the fact that Željko Komšić was elected at the post of Croat member of the Presidency mostly with Bosniaks’ votes,[5] a circumstance often presented by BiH Croats as a clear sign of the institutional discrimination they are subjected to.[6]

After the victory, Lagumdžija and his party claimed for themselves all key positions within the new Council of Ministers. Lagumdžija, even during his electoral campaign, repeatedly confirmed his intention to be appointed as the new Prime Minister.[7]

This request exacerbated the conflict between the SDPBiH and the two HDZs, which had won the majority of votes in the electoral units with a Croat majority. Even though there is no law regulating the designation of the Prime Minister, the main parties in BiH have always been loyal to a ‘gentleman’s agreement’, stipulating that the chief of the government should come from a different constitutive people at every new mandate: in 2002, the PM was a Bosniak (Adnan Terzić, SDA); in 2006, a Serb (Nikola Špirić, SNSD). In 2010, therefore, the PM was supposed to be a Croat.

This praxis was part of that ‘paradigm’ that Lagumdžija tried to challenge. Lagumdžija wanted what is common to most western democracies: the right for the winning party to propose its leader as new PM and to negotiate who should be part of the government coalition. Or, as the leader of the SDPBiH put it, the right to base a government coalition “on programs rather than on arithmetic”.

This position was not exempt of consequences: first, there is no rule in the Constitution of the country which would have granted this right to the Social-Democrats. The topic was particularly sensitive since, as the journalist Asim Metilijević wrote, “this would [have] prevent[ed] the Croat parties to obtain a position in the government they [had] waited for ten years”, and thus would have created a precedent for “the future exclusion of Bosnian Croats from every key position inside the Council of Ministers”.[8]

Lagumdžija’s proposal easily fuelled the identitarian rhetoric of the two HDZs, which have long time called for establishing a third entity to protect the rights of the Bosnian Croats. Even more worryingly, this put the SDPBiH in a dead-end street. As it became increasingly clear, no functional Council of Ministers could have been constituted in Sarajevo without the support of the two HDZs.

Indeed, the Constitution of BiH, while establishing the principle of the equal representation of the three constitutive peoples (Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs) defined some ground rules to avoid that one ethnic group could outvote the others: the electoral rules are designed in such a way that the party with the biggest amount of votes cannot, per se, form a working Council of Ministers without the support of the three constitutive peoples.

The need for this horizontal consensus is granted through the existence of an upper chamber in the State Parliament, the Dom Naroda, where the three constituent peoples are equally represented. The upper chamber is formed of 15 delegates, 5 per every constitutive people, elected by the two entities. 10 members are elected by the Croat and Bosniak delegates to the House of Peoples of the FBiH, while the other 5 by the National Assembly of the Republic of Srpska. The delegates of the House of Peoples of the FBiH, finally, are chosen by the Cantonal assemblies.

According to the Constitution, in order to form a Council of Ministers, it is not necessary to gain a majority inside the House of Peoples. However, the lack of support in the upper chamber can paralyze the activities of the government: the Constitution, in fact, prescribes that every law must be approved by both chambers.

Hence, Zlatko Lagumdžija had the numbers to form a government in the FBiH and at the state level without the support of the two HDZs and their major ally, the SNSD of Milorad Dodik, which was at that time the first party in the RS and the second biggest party at the state level.[9] This option, however, would have led BiH to instability and to an institutional stalemate. Regardless of what most analysts and politicians had forecast, i.e. that the only possible option was to form a coalition of the six main parties (SDPBiH, SDA, SNSD, SDS, HDZBiH, HDZ1990), Lagumdžija unilaterally decided to take this risk, forcing the country in a desperate tentative of reform.

On March 17th, he announced the formation of a government in the FBiH, based on a coalition between the Social-Democrats, the SDA, and two minor Croat parties, Narodna Stranka – Radom za Boljtak (NSRZ) and Hrvatska Stranka Prava of Bosnia and Herzegovina (HSPBiH).

Already in December, when Lagumdžija had reached an agreement with these two minor Croat parties, the news was received coldly even in the circle of the SDPBiH’s closest allies. Sulejman Tihić, the secretary of the SDA, had spent the previous months calling for a compromise, supporting the formation of a “šestorka” government, composed of the two main parties for every constitutive people.[10]

To prevent a SDPBiH’s government in the Federation, in the Cantons where they held the majority the two HDZs refused to nominate the representatives for the FBiH House of Peoples. Hence, a constitutive session of the House of Peoples couldn’t be held until all ten cantons had elected their representatives.[11]

Even though the FBiH Constitution doesn’t require the vote of the House of Peoples to elect a new government, it requires its majority to choose the President of the entity, who is in the end responsible for appointing the government.[12] This resulted therefore in a decision by the Central Electoral Commission to declare the SDPBiH-led government illegal.

Few days later, the High Representative, Valentin Inzko, unexpectedly suspended the decision of the CEC.[13] This resolution was partially due to a practical reason: if the FBiH hadn’t appointed a new government by the end of March, the entity would have been left without a public budget and therefore all public administration expenses, including salaries, would have been frozen. On the other hand, the involvement of Inzko in BiH’s internal affairs shows that the international community, or at least those who insisted on a more active role of the OHR (the USA and the UK), supported the work of Zlatko Lagumdžija and his party as a way to break the ethnic and nationalist influence on Bosnian politics.

As a matter of fact, starting from 17th March 2011 one of the two entities of the country was ruled by a government which was illegally formed, according to BiH laws, but was kept into power thanks to a decision of the International Community.

This situation didn’t ease the relations between the parties pushing for a bigger centralization of the country (SDPBiH, SDA) and those (SNSD, SDS, and the two HDZs) advocating for decentralization: the Croats had the final proof that there was no space for them in Sarajevo; the government of Republic of Srpska had a pretext to claim that Bosniaks wanted to outvote all other constitutive peoples, and therefore pushed for a wider autonomy of the RS.

It was not surprising that since March 2011 any tentative of forming a State Government was doomed to failure. The deadlock was finally solved on December 28th, after a 15 months political vacuum. It is interesting to note that the coalition formed in December was the same many had forecast to be the only viable compromise just one week after the elections: the šestorka. More than one year later, Lagumdžija’s tentative to change the paradigm hadn’t achieved any result other than forming a CoM with the other identitarian parties, including HDZs (the Croat block also succeeded in imposing Vjekoslav Bevanda from HDZBiH as the new PM) and a fragile government in the FBiH, whose only legitimacy was based on the OHR decision.

The first 15 months constituted the basis for other 3 years of blockade and lack of reforms. This at a time when the country was supposed to implement important laws (the law on the Census – which was finally conducted last October – and the reform of the Constitution according to the verdict of the European Court of Human Rights on the Sejdić-Finci case). The CoM formed at the end of 2011 didn’t last too long: in May 2012 the coalition between the SDA and the SDPBiH broke up,[14] officially because of a disagreement over the State budget, but more probably in the course of the electoral campaign for the October local elections.

This was the beginning of the second serious political crisis. The works of the Council of Ministers were interrupted from May until November 2012, when finally the Parliament approved the reshuffling of the Government. The SDA was substituted by the SBBBiH of Fahrudin Radončić, the owner of the popular newspaper ‘Dnevni Avaz’, also suspected by Bosnian authorities of connections with the organized crime. The divorce between SDA and SDPBiH was particularly disastrous in the Federation, where it generated a political crisis which was never resolved until the end of the mandate.

By 2013, Zlatko Lagumdžija had quite ironically changed his party’s alliances, getting closer to those parties he had tried to marginalize at the immediate aftermath of 2010 elections: the SNSD and HDZBiH. In the end, his tentative to reform the functioning of the institutions of BiH resolved in a political suicide, rather than a real attempt to move BiH politics forward. This was sealed in 2014 general elections, where the SDPBiH votes dropped dramatically to a mere 6,65% and bringing back to power the old identitarian parties.

Rodolfo Toè works as correspondent in Bosnia and Herzegovina for the French newsportal ‘Le Courrier des Balkans’ and the Italian ‘Osservatorio Balcani e Caucaso‘. He’s the co-founder of a website specialized in the economy of Eastern Europe, ‘Rassegna Est‘.

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1) Lagumdžija is quoted by Tim Judah, in an article called ‘Bosnia – The problem that won’t go away’, appeared in The Economist, 28th march 2011

2) Quoted on the web portal –

3) Source: Central Electoral Commission –

4) Source: elaboration based on data by Central Electoral Commission of BiH.

5) Which means, in fact, that Komsic got the biggest support in those electoral units where Bosniaks make up the biggest share of the population (Central Bosnia and Bihac) –

6) Ivan Vukoja, Elections as a form of discrimination of Croats in Bosnia and Herzegovina”. Cfr. also this column by the Editor in Chief of Radio Slobodna Evropa, Nenad Pejic, ‘SDP protiv SDP-a’

7) Asim Metiljevic, ‘Pirova pobjeda Zlatka Lagumdzije’, Slobodna Bosna 7 october 2010.

8) Asim Metiljevic, ‘Lagumdžija s Dodikom najavljuie mir, a sa Covicem rat do istrebljenja’.

9) Central Electoral Commission.

10) Slobodna Bosna, “Deblokada Vlasti: Tihic predlaze koaliciju 2+2+2: Covic se povlaci u korist Lagumdzije!?”

11) E. Hadzovic, “Bosnia Federation Government on hold again”, Balkan Insight 9th March 2011

12) Constitution of FBiH, Art. 7

13), the text of the decision can be read in its entirety at the following link on OHR’s website

14) Potpredsednik SDP najavljuie raskid koalicije sa SDA, Slobodna Evropa

What are the principles of conflict transformation?



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