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Bosnia: Elections Confused Amid Muslim Calls To Boycott Vote

Prague, 29 August 1996 (RFE/RL) - Bosnia's elections have been plunged into disarray after three Muslim-dominated parties called on refugees abroad to boycott all polls until voter registration problems can be resolved.

The call, led by President Alija Izetbegovic's Party of Democratic Action (SDA), was addressed to more than half a million Bosnian refugees in some 50 countries who began voting by absentee ballot yesterday. Two other Muslim parties, including one led by popular former Prime Minister Haris Silajdzic, joined the boycott. Voters living in Bosnia are scheduled to cast their ballots on September 14.

The move follows a decision two days ago by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to postpone municipal polls, but proceed with elections for a collective presidency, Bosnia-wide parliament and cantonal administrations.

The OSCE, which is supervising the poll, said problems with voter registration would compromise elections at the local level, but would not seriously affect voting in other races. Izetbegovic had been pushing the OSCE to postpone the municipal polls because of alleged attempts by the Bosnian Serbs to stack the vote in strategic cities which had Muslim majorities before the war.

But now Izetbegovic's SDA said in a statement yesterday that the postponement of municipal elections was only a partial solution to a much wider problem.

International monitors have charged that all three sides in Bosnia have exploited voter registration to consolidate the ethnic composition of the areas they control. The Bosnian Serbs in particular have been accused of recruiting Serb refugees to vote in towns that had Muslim majorities before the war in order to ensure Serb-controlled municipal governments. Bosnia's complex election rules allow refugees to vote where they lived before the war or where they "intend" to live.

The OSCE sharply criticized the Muslim move to boycott the elections by saying it amounted to a decision to "opt out of the democratic process." The group issued a statement saying the delay in municipal voting adequately dealt with irregularities in voter registration.

Bosnian Serb leaders, for their part, condemned the delay and threatened to stage their own municipal elections. The OSCE's Robert Frowick said such a unilateral move would be "illegal" and the results of self-organized elections would not be valid.

The disarray surrounding the elections at this stage could have serious implications, even though voting inside Bosnia is not due to start for another two weeks. The OSCE has said the number of absentee voters living abroad is nearly as large as the number of people who have registered to vote inside Bosnia. More than half of Bosnia's population was displaced during the war.

It is unclear whether refugees voting abroad heard or heeded the Muslim call to temporarily boycott the election. But it was certain to add confusion to what one OSCE representative called "the most complicated election in history."

Some of the estimated 320,000 refugees preparing to cast their ballots in Germany expressed bewilderment at the complexity of the election itself. They asked: Who's running? For what office? From which political party?

Voting at actual polling stations set up in rump Yugoslavia reportedly got off to a very slow start yesterday. Many refugees in the Serbian capital Belgrade complained they had not yet received election materials.

Given the complexity of voting, the prospect of staging municipal elections at another time could prove a daunting task. First, international organizations would have to re-organize the vote for thousands of refugees living abroad. Second, voter registration would need to be redone in light of reported irregularities.

But most importantly, there is mounting pressure to reschedule the municipal polls before NATO-led peacekeeping troops withdraw in December. That would mean holding the local elections in Bosnia's often harsh winter, making it even more difficult for voters to cross inter-ethnic boundaries to cast ballots in their pre-war communities.

Some observers say the decision to postpone the municipal elections appears to have created more problems than it has solved. Not only has it cast doubt on the legitimacy of the upcoming vote, but it has added more questions to Bosnia's already uncertain future.