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Bosnia: Flawed Voter Registration Casts Doubt Over Municipal Elections

Prague, 27 August 1996 (RFE/RL) -- International monitors are expected to decide today whether to postpone municipal elections in Bosnia owing to concerns that voter registration has been manipulated to cement ethnic divisions.

While doubt centers on the municipal polls, elections for a collective presidency, a Bosnia-wide parliament, and cantonal administrations are expected to go ahead.

Representatives of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) were to meet in Sarajevo today to discuss alleged Bosnian Serb manipulation of voter registration before the September 14 election. The OSCE has a mandate to supervise elections in Bosnia.

The Bosnian parliament also is meeting in Sarajevo today to discuss the electoral crisis created by voter registration problems.

All three sides in Bosnia have been criticized for using voter registration to consolidate the ethnic composition of the areas they control. But the Bosnian Serbs have been singled out for the worst abuses.

According to recently released registration figures, Bosnian Serb authorities have made systematic efforts to stack the vote in strategic cities which had Muslim majorities before the war. Under complex election rules, refugees are allowed to vote where they lived before the war, where they currently reside or where they intend to live.

Originally, this provision was designed to help refugees participate in the elections, but critics now say it has led to what is being called "electoral ethnic cleansing."

International observers, including the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), say Bosnian Serbs have exploited this election loophole to register more than 100,000 Serb refugees from rump Yugoslavia in new residences in Republika Srpska. The UNHCR's Soren Jessen-Petersen has said Bosnian Serb officials are offering humanitarian aid and housing to entice displaced Serbs to register in places other than their prewar homes.

According to the UNHCR, this abuse of the electoral rules has been used to tip the balance in strategic towns such as Srebrenica, whose large Muslim population was expelled by Bosnian Serbs last year, and the narrow northern corridor around Brcko, which connects the two large chunks Bosnian Serb territory.

Unlike the Bosnian Serbs, most Muslims have registered to vote in communities where they lived before the war, often in Serb-held areas from which they were ethnically cleansed. Many of these Bosnian Muslim voters intend to cross the inter-ethnic boundary line on election day, a prospect that has given rise to fears that violence could erupt. Many Bosnian Serb leaders have vowed block them from coming.

The ruling Muslim Party of Democratic Action (SDA), led by Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic, has protested against manipulation of voter registration and threatened to boycott the election if municipal voting is not postponed.

But the ruling Bosnian Serb Democratic Party is opposed to postponing the municipal polls. Some observers have expressed concern that Bosnian Serbs could boycott all the polls if the OSCE decides to postpone the municipal elections.

The Dayton accord requires that elections be held by mid-September, but it does not specifically stipulate that municipal polls be held at the same time. The decision on whether to postpone some of the elections is now urgent, as refugees abroad are scheduled to begin voting tomorrow by absentee ballot.

Flaws in voter registration is believed to have the greatest effect on the municipal elections. But analysts say postponing them could be understood as an indication that the entire vote is compromised.

Many western governments and international organizations have admitted that conditions for a free, fair and democratic vote in Bosnia have not been fully met. But they maintain that a flawed election is better than none at all.

While some say the vote will legalize ethnic cleansing, others see it as an opportunity to create joint institutions capable of overcoming Bosnia's division.