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Bosnians Voting For New Government, But Change Unlikely

"I expect these elections to confirm the stability of Republika Srpska," Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik said after voting.

"I expect these elections to confirm the stability of Republika Srpska," Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik said after voting.

Bosnians are voting in a convoluted election that few expect to bring any real change, despite February's violent civil unrest -- kindled by corruption and poverty -- and widespread discontent with the authorities' reaction to catastrophic floods that hit the country in May.

This week, for the first time, a European Union enlargement report put Bosnia-Herzegovina at the back of the Balkan queue for EU membership as ethnic divisions stemming from the war, which ended almost two decades ago, continue to block reforms needed to move the country forward.

Western sponsors have kept urging Bosnians to elect leaders who will get them out of a deep rut in which most of them share the same problems -- with finding a job or surviving on a meager income topping the list.

The February protests -- which were sparked by the crony privatization of state companies and factory closures -- and the botched way that the country's different government administrations handled flood relief and recovery efforts, including allegations of misused funds, gave fresh hope that this could provide the spark for political change.

The U.S. international aid and development agency USAID launched a campaign in the run-up to the election, inviting Bosnians to "vote or suffer," and its country mission head wrote a scathing blog post accusing the governing authorities of incompetence.

Yet, as before, other issues are likely to swing the voters' election day decisions and analysts are warning that a surprise is unlikely once the preliminary counting of votes ends early on October 13.

"While the governments' poor performance should affect the popularity of the ruling parties, it is still not going to have a significant effect on the election results because, in many cases, opposition parties have also failed to prove that they are a better option," Sarajevo-based political analyst Srecko Latal said in written comments.

INFOGRAPHIC: Elections In Bosnia-Herzegovina

Some 3.3 million voters in one of Europe's poorest countries are casting their ballots on October 12 to choose candidates for more than 500 posts in a complex and costly system of government set up under Western patronage after the 1992-95 conflict.

The 1995 Dayton Agreement, which ended the Bosnian war, set up two separate entities -- a Muslim-Croat Federation and the Serb-run Republika Srpska, each with its own president, parliament, police, and other bodies.

On top of this, there is also a central administration and a rotating three-man presidency.

It's a form of government that breeds ethnic discord, graft, and nepotism.

"I expect these elections to confirm the stability of Republika Srpska," Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik said after voting.

Bakir Izetbegovic, the Muslim member of the presidency, who is running for a second term, vowed for the end of divisions.

"It's high time to end the standstill and I think that politicians have matured enough to come out of this vicious cycle," he said on October 12.

To make matters more difficult and confusing, Bosnian voters are choosing from almost 8,000 candidates standing for 65 parties, 24 coalitions, and a handful of independent lists in the country's two autonomous units.

Intriguing Contests

At least this year it appears that some election races could be more interesting than the others.

In Republika Srpska, the election pits President Milorad Dodik and a coalition dominated by his Alliance of Independent Social Democrats (SNSD), which has ruled supreme for the past eight years, against a bloc led by the Serb Democratic Party (SDS), which -- with war crimes suspect Radovan Karadzic at its head -- led Bosnian Serbs during the war as they attempted to secede from newly-independent Bosnia.

Radovan Karadzic at his war crimes trial in The Hague earlier this month

Radovan Karadzic at his war crimes trial in The Hague earlier this month

Karadzic's trial at the UN war crimes tribunal on genocide charges wrapped up in The Hague last week with the prosecution asking for life imprisonment. A verdict should be delivered next year.

Meanwhile, even Karadzic himself would be excused for being confused about the pre-election campaign in Republika Srpska.

Dodik, once a pro-Western reformer who has turned into a nationalist firebrand, keeps pushing the separatist agenda and boasts of his close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin. He even suggested naming government-funded institutions, such as student dormitories, after Karadzic.

The SDS, which has accused Dodik of running Republika Srpska like a private fiefdom in which he and his cronies have enriched themselves, dismisses separatist talk as the cheap rousing of nationalist sentiment and talks about improving the economic lot of the ordinary people and embarking on necessary -- yet limited -- cooperation with the other half of the country.

A voter casts her ballot in Sarajevo.

A voter casts her ballot in Sarajevo.

According to polls, there are neck-and-neck races between SNSD and SDS candidates on all levels. Some observers believe that a victory for the SDS-led coalition could help ease relations between both halves of Bosnia.

'No Easy Solutions'

However, Banja Luka-based sociologist and pollster Srdjan Puhalo cautions against setting expectations too high.

"They may find many problems, empty coffers -- and they will try to put all the blame on the SNSD while attempting to solve burning issues," he told RFE/RL's Balkan Service. "I am afraid it could stay at that, because there are no -- and there will be no -- easy solutions."

The Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) is expected to continue its dominance among the Croats, who are numerically the smallest ethnic group and are also unhappy with having what they see as an inferior position to the Muslim Bosniaks in their federation.

For the first time in eight years, the HDZ should have its own candidate elected to the country's presidency, following back-to-back victories for the candidate of the multiethnic Social Democrats (SDP), thanks to Bosniak votes in the federation. Republika Srpska elects the Serb member of the collective head of state and the other half of the country picks the Bosniak and Croat ones.

The Croats still harbor hopes of territorial redistribution and the establishment of their own region, for which Dodik has offered his help, and the expected strong HDZ showing will give these ambitions a strong push.

Among the Bosniaks, who generally want stronger central government at the expense of lower levels, the field is the most crowded and the primary contest will be between the SDP and the main Bosniak party, Democratic Action (SDA), with several smaller parties and offshoots helping to muddy the waters.

The SDP has led a coalition government which also includes the SDA, but the two parties have been constantly at odds.

Whatever way the vote turns out, there will be still be plenty of work left for the international community, Latal said, especially given the fact that the new EU approach, outlined this summer, includes extremely difficult and unpopular economic and social reforms, which previous governments have deliberately avoided undertaking.

The EU's financial help and incentives need to be beefed up too, he added:

"[They] will have to remain closely and proactively engaged in Bosnia if they want to prevent the current difficult political, economic, and social crisis from spinning out of control and becoming a security issue for the region and all of Europe," Latal said.

With reporting by Reuters