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Analysis: Clerics Get Out The Vote For The Nationalist Parties In Bosnia

A recent RFE/RL broadcast calls attention to the questionable political role of clerics in the run-up to the 2 October local elections in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The problem is likely to get worse before it gets better.

Bosnia-Herzegovina, like most of former Yugoslavia, is a largely secular society as a result of decades of communist oppression of the Roman Catholic, Serbian Orthodox, and Muslim faiths. The clergy and religious organizations in particular were singled out for communist persecution, but even public manifestations of belief by private individuals were often subject to mockery or worse.

It is true that many nationalists stressed the religious aspect of their ethnic identity during the 1992-95 Bosnian conflict, and that more than a few individuals turned to religion to find a new orientation in response to the upheavals of those years. But power remains largely in the hands of the political, military, business, and even criminal elites that emerged before and during the conflict, and not of the clergy as such.
In the run-up to the 2 October elections, polarization is likely to become even more intense.

The Bosnian general elections of 5 October 2002 produced a clear victory for the three nationalist parties: the Muslim Party of Democratic Action (SDA), the Serbian Democratic Party (SDS), and the Croatian Democratic Community (HDZ). On 2 October this year, voters will go to the polls in local elections that may well see a reinforcement of that trend.

As a recent program by RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service pointed out, many clerics are trying to influence the faithful to vote for the nationalists. As academic Muhamed Filipovic told RFE/RL, when any prominent cleric tells his flock to vote for the good or salvation of their respective ethnic group, it is clear that he means they should vote for their respective nationalist party and not for the Social Democrats or other nonnationalist slates.

Evidence of this behavior is not hard to find. Across Bosnia, one need only listen to what is being said to the faithful at the mosques regarding how and for whom to vote. In Konjevic Polje, an Orthodox church has been built on Muslim land, and the local clergy has been active in giving the area a distinctly Serbian stamp.

Roman Catholic Archbishop Vinko Puljic, who is also Bosnia's first-ever cardinal and reportedly a favorite of Pope John Paul II, openly called on the Pope to protect the Roman Catholic population, stressing that the Croats do not enjoy full equality with the Muslims and Serbs as they are supposed to under the 1995 Dayton peace agreement. This just happens to be a favorite theme of the HDZ as well.

Filipovic says that these practices reflect a mind-set that believes that society should be organized on the basis of ethnically and hence religiously pure communities, each with its own clearly defined territory. He notes that such beliefs run counter to the Bosnian Constitution and that those who advocate them should be taken to court.

Srdjan Dizdarevic, who heads Bosnia's Helsinki Committee, argues that political involvement by clerics is nothing new and is a growing problem. He maintains that the close "symbiotic" links between the clerics and the nationalists threaten to undermine Bosnia as a secular state in which individual freedoms include strict protection of the right of all people to live their lives as they see fit.

Sociologist Salih Foco agrees, stressing that supposedly democratic elections won by nationalists are not really democratic. This is because the nationalists' victories are usually the result of pressure on voters to vote for the nationalists or be regarded as traitors to or enemies of their religion and ethnic group, he adds.

The Franciscan friar Fra Marko Orsolic, who heads the International Interreligious Center in Sarajevo, maintains that everyone, including the clergy, has the right to express political views in a democracy -- but not in a religious building. Clerics, like soldiers and police, have every right to take part in politics, but as individuals and not as representatives of their faith or institutions, he says.

But what can be done about clerics abusing their position for political ends? Fra Orsolic suggests that a joint watchdog committee be set up to include representatives of the clergy, political parties, and the state electoral bodies. Filipovic believes that High Representative Paddy Ashdown should emphasize that political life be firmly grounded in secularism and take appropriate action to that end. Filipovic stresses that only through a political culture free of overt clericalism and nationalism will Bosnia be truly able to take its place in Europe.

But in the run-up to the 2 October elections, the RFE/RL broadcast suggested, polarization is likely to become even more intense. This is because the parties will seek to win over the undecided voters, whom polls suggest make up more than 30 percent of the electorate in both the Republika Srpska and the Croat-Muslim Federation.