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Analysis: Elections Raise Questions In Bosnia, Serbia, And Slovenia

A man casts his ballot in Banja Luka on 2 October Voters in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, and Slovenia went to the polls recently and reaffirmed some developing trends, not all of which are necessarily to the liking of their Western partners.

Bosnia-Herzegovina held local elections for the mayors and town councils in 142 municipalities on 2 October. This was the first ballot since the 1992-95 conflict to be funded and organized by Bosnians themselves, and also the first in which mayors were directly elected.

Initial reports suggest that of the 122 municipalities where tallies are largely complete, 99 will likely be controlled by one or another of the three ruling nationalist parties, which were also the parties in power during the 1992-95 conflict: the Muslim Party of Democratic Action (SDA), the Serbian Democratic Party (SDS), or the Croatian Democratic Community (HDZ).

The only opposition gains were made by moderate former Bosnian Serb Prime Minister Milorad Dodik's Alliance of Independent Social Democrats (SNSD), which won in about 20 municipalities, including Banja Luka and the former SDS stronghold of Trebinje in eastern Herzegovina.

Many commentators attributed the nationalists' successes to the low 45.5 percent turnout, which is at least partly the result of voter apathy, particularly among younger voters in urban areas.

Complete results are expected in about one month because of the large number of absentee ballots yet to be counted. The international community's high representative for Bosnia-Herzegovina, Paddy Ashdown, said that "what is important now is that politicians put campaigning behind them, return to work, and concentrate on the necessary order to give this country a future in Europe and NATO."

It is nonetheless worth noting that the continuing political domination by the nationalists is precisely what has been holding Bosnia back from Euro-Atlantic integration, particularly the reluctance of SDS officials in the Republika Srpska to cooperate with the Hague-based war crimes tribunal and bring indictees to justice (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 September 2004, and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 28 May 2004).

The three nationalist parties govern within the constitutional system set down in the 1995 Dayton peace agreement. A paradoxical consequence of their political power used in pursuit of their own respective, often mutually exclusive, agendas is that an all-powerful, unelected, foreign high representative sometimes overrules and even ousts duly elected nationalist officials. They have no right of appeal against his decisions, which are ostensibly made in the name of Western democratic values and the Dayton agreement.

Some observers consider this system the only one that is practical, given the antagonisms between the three respective nationalist parties and their corresponding agendas.

But at least three other -- equally controversial -- options are widely discussed inside and outside Bosnia. One is to abolish the high representative's post and leave the Bosnians to determine their own fate, which probably means continued nationalist rule without any outside arbiter.

The second possibility is to throw out the Dayton agreement and hold a new constitutional convention, which would presumably be dominated by the nationalists.

The third option is to partition the country between Serbia and Croatia, leaving a Muslim rump ministate. This solution might please Serbian and Croatian nationalists but would likely leave most Muslims feeling very insecure (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 1 July 2004 and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 5 September 2003 and 23 January 2004). Does the nationalist victory in the latest local elections offer any hope out of this seeming impasse?

The day after Bosnians went to the polls in a local election, citizens of Serbia did the same. And as in Bosnia, this was the first time in decades that mayors were elected directly.

Serbian voters reaffirmed trends that emerged in the 13 and 27 June Serbian presidential vote and in the first round of local elections on 19 September, in which President Boris Tadic's reformist Democratic Party and Tomislav Nikolic's hard-line Serbian Radical Party (SRS) emerged as the two strongest political forces in the country (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 July, and 8, 20, and 27 September 2004 and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 2 July 2004).

Amid a low turnout of just under 23 percent, incomplete official or unofficial returns suggested that the Democrats won in Belgrade and 23 other municipalities, while the Radical Party was ahead in Novi Sad and 18 other localities. In Belgrade, Democrat Nenad Bogdanovic beat the Radicals' Aleksandar Vucic by just a few percentage points. In Novi Sad, Radical Maja Gojkovic won by just 695 votes over Democrat Borislav Novakovic, who conceded defeat even before election officials announced the results.
The day after Bosnians went to the polls in a local election, citizens of Serbia did the same. And as in Bosnia, this was the first time in decades that mayors were elected directly.

Although drawing conclusions about national political trends on the basis of local elections is risky in any country, many commentators began on election night to discuss the future of Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica's government. His cabinet includes neither the Radicals, who are the strongest single party in the parliament, nor the Democrats, whose leader Tadic tops recent public opinion polls. "Cohabitation" between him and Kostunica is often uneasy at best, and the rivalry between the Democrats and Kostunica's Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS) runs deep. Polls suggest, moreover, that the smaller parties in Kostunica's cabinet might not win enough votes to return to the parliament if new general elections were to be held soon.

Furthermore, there is the wild card represented by wealthy businessman Bogoljub Karic, who made an impressive third place showing in the 13 June first round of the Serbian presidential race. Karic's newly founded Snaga Srbije movement -- a name analogous with Forza Italia -- is not itself represented in the parliament yet, but it is an open secret that many legislators are under Karic's influence.

Might Serbia -- which has seen several parties rise and fall over the past decade and a half -- now be heading for a two-party system centered on reformist and hard-line camps, with Karic's party occupying some sort of kingmaker role? Will the voters eventually turn their backs on the Democrats and Radicals if either or both of them some day prove ineffective in government, as the voters have done with other parties in recent years? Does the low turnout in this election reflect voter fatigue after a series of polls, or does it suggest a more profound alienation from the political process? And does the low turnout in Bosnia reflect a similar pattern?

Finally, on 3 October, Slovenian voters chose a new parliament with a 60 percent turnout. While the precise arithmetic for determining the next coalition government must await final returns on 13 October and a possible recount, it is clear that the conservative Slovenian Democratic Party (SDS) of former Defense Minister Janez Jansa won a clear victory (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 4 and 5 October 2004).

The most immediate question is whether he will be able to put together a working majority in the 90-seat parliament with the help of the center-right New Slovenia party (NSi) and the Slovenian People's Party (SLS) alone, or whether he will have to find a fourth partner as well.

If he does need a fourth partner, a likely possibility is the far-right Slovenian National Party (SNS). What might the other members of the EU and NATO say about working with a government that includes the SNS? Might such a Slovenian government face the same sort of EU sanctions as the Austrians did when the far-right Freedom Party (FPO) of Joerg Haider entered the cabinet not so long ago?

Furthermore, the Croatian media reacted with alarm to news of a center-right victory, since Jansa and his conservative potential coalition partners have ruled out any compromise with Croatia in their long-standing border dispute. The outgoing center-left Prime Minister Anton Rop recently threatened to block Croatia's EU membership application over the border issue but retracted his comments under pressure from Brussels. Will Jansa prove as agreeable to Brussels' wishes as was Rop (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 29 and 30 September 2004 and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 1 October 2004)?

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