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Bosnia: Election Campaign Deteriorates As Polling Date Nears

Prague, 23 August 1996 (RFE/RL) -- As the September 14 polling date for general elections in Bosnia-Herzegovina nears, inter-party strife in Republika Srpska and the Muslim-Croat federation, is worsening. A leading presidential candidate and several political parties are already calling for a postponement of the contest.

Former Bosnian Prime Minister Haris Silajdzic, presidential candidate and leader of the Party for Bosnia-Herzegovina (SBiH), has said repeatedly the Bosnian elections are "neither fair nor democratic and will only serve to legitimize ethnic cleansing." The SBiH and several other moderate parties in the Muslim-Croat federation are particularly opposed to allowing displaced citizens to vote in their newly-adopted place of residence.

Most displaced Bosnian Serbs intend to vote in the communities where they have been resettled, while most displaced Muslims intend to cast absentee ballots or travel to their pre-war hometowns to vote. But the head of Republika Srpska's Serbian Democratic Party (SDS) Aleksa Buha, has warned that Bosnian Serb police will block Muslim exiles from returning to certain areas to vote.

Ambassador Robert Frowick of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) insists the elections will proceed as planned. The Dayton accords empowered OSCE to organize and supervise Bosnia-Herzegovina's first postwar general elections, due to be held at the presidential, parliamentary, cantonal and local levels.

Frowick said two days ago in Sarajevo that the election date will only be reconsidered in the event of a major outbreak of violence or war. OSCE is doing everything it can "to achieve the objective of having reasonably democratic elections... as free and fair as possible," he said.

But he also said that OSCE reserves the right to invalidate election results in those localities where systematic interference with democratic freedoms or gross manipulation of election procedures occurs.

Authorities in certain communities are hindering the development of democratic conditions, discouraging freedom of movement, freedom of speech and the press, freedom of association and the right of refugees to return to their hometowns to vote, he said. Frowick named five towns in the federation: Capljina, Bugojno, Drvar, Sanski Most, and Stolac, and five in Republika Srpska: Doboj, Lopare, Prijedor, Teslic, and Zvornik, where these problems are arising.

In the aftermath of talks yesterday with Kresimir Zubak, president of the Bosnian Muslim-Croat federation, OSCE chairman and Swiss Foreign Minister Flavio Cotti called for measures to ensure freedom of movement of citizens.

"If freedom of movement for citizens were guaranteed, the main condition for minimal, correct elections would be given," said Cotti.

The leaders of two ruling Bosnian Croat and Muslim parties, the HDZ and the SDA, moved yesterday to grant parties based in the federation access to news media and permission to hold rallies in Bosnian-Croat administered areas.

But in Serb administered Bijelina in northeastern Bosnia, mayor Dragomir Ljubojevic has expressed concern with the predicted influx of exiled Muslim voters to their hometown on election day. Five years ago Bijeljina had a Muslim majority, but it is now almost entirely Serb owing to ethnic cleansing and the resettlement of ethnic Serbs from other parts of Bosnia now under Croat or Muslim administration.

OSCE is still considering how to resolve such issues. A senior OSCE election official, Jeff Fischer, says that in an effort to avoid violence, OSCE is thinking about establishing special polling stations at certain "hot spots" along the federation's boundary with Republika Srpska.

"This would allow the displaced voter to cast a ballot, in effect an absentee ballot, on the federation side for a voting district in Republika Srpska," he said.

OSCE is also considering busing voters to polling stations across the boundary.

Fischer insists that requiring absentee balloting for security reasons does not necessarily mean recognition of Bosnia partition as some federation-based parties claim. He told reporters in Sarajevo that despite Muslim-Croat tensions, OSCE does not envision setting up special absentee polling stations near the federation's boundary with Herceg-Bosna.