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Bosnia: OSCE Faces Challenges In Next Round Of Elections

Sarajevo, 16 October 1996 (RFE/RL) -- Municipal elections for the whole of Bosnia-Herzegovina are to be held in just under six weeks, on November 23 and 24. But the problems abound.

It has been difficult to install candidates elected in the last month's controversial national vote for the presidency and parliament, with Bosnian Serbs creating major obstacles in the path of building joint institutions. Even more serious problems are expected with the local elections, which may see Muslims elected to municipal councils in Serb-held areas.

International peace envoy Carl Bildt has said the way this challenge is handled will be "one of the most significant factors affecting the results of the international effort in Bosnia."

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), charged with overseeing the entire Bosnian electoral process, remains committed to do the job. In an exclusive interview with RFE/RL, David Foley, spokesman for the OSCE mission in Sarajevo, yesterday said that scheduled municipal elections in Bosnia are proceeding on course as planned.

Foley said consultations are underway with all parties about what he called "legitimate concerns" surrounding the November vote. Foley said that "closure" had not yet been reached, but that the OSCE was hopeful a satisfactory solution would soon be found and that there would be "full participation" in the municipal elections.

Foley declined to be specific about the "concerns," but Western news media say the Bosnian Serbs are threatening to hold their own local elections outside international mediation efforts. The Serbs are reported to have said they might boycott the polls because of rising tension in some areas of Bosnia and dissatisfaction with the OSCE.

The municipal elections have already been postponed once, amid allegations that Bosnian Serbs were tampering with voter registration.

Foley said the OSCE has made specific progress in addressing the registration issue in advance of the upcoming vote. He said a special voter verification drive will be held November 11-16. Foley also told RFE/RL that the OSCE had taken measures to ensure that international monitors will be in place at all 2,500 scheduled polling stations throughout the process.

During last month's polls, there were 4,000 polling stations overall. International monitors were in place at every third one, leading to criticism in the aftermath as reports of fraud and manipulation surfaced.

In recent days, scores of international officials, including U.N. Human Rights envoy Elisabeth Rehn, peace envoy Carl Bildt and the OSCE's coordinator for the national elections Edward Van Tijhn, have said it is too soon to hold local elections. All have suggested the elections should again be postponed until next Spring.

But the OSCE says putting off the election would pose a major security problem. NATO is set to begin a rapid withdrawal of its peacekeepers after the November polling date, with the draw-down expected to be complete in January.

The OSCE's Foley added that the municipal elections can go ahead, as long as the OSCE meets three conditions set by the Peace Implementation Council steering board during a recent meeting in Sarajevo.

Foley said the first two conditions -- "higher standards" and international supervision -- have already been put into place. He said the third condition is two-fold and under implementation. It prescribes the setting up of structures facilitating re-runs in individual districts -- should that be necessary -- and those for the installation of the municipal's winning candidates.

Foley said the OSCE is currently in "close consultation" with Bildt's office over the issue of installation. Bildt argues that the mandate for installing candidates from both elections lies with the OSCE. Foley says the OSCE is willing to assume responsibility if it is given "the proper mandate."

Deputy High Representative for Bosnia, Michael Steiner, said recently that tighter overall control of Bosnia's local elections was needed in order to ensure their success. Steiner has said the municipal elections are more important than the central elections because "they directly affect the people." Steiner added that at the local level, a few votes can determine who governs a municipality.

Elections in Bosnia are a central plank of the Dayton Peace Accords, which ended the nearly four years of war. The terms of Dayton are intended to legitimize national and local government bodies in post-war Bosnia. The country currently consists of two largely autonomous entities, the Muslim-Croat Federation and the Republika Srpska, under a weak central multi-ethnic government.