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Bosnia: Municipal Elections Seen As Crucial To Peace

Prague/Sarajevo, 11 September 1997 (RFE/RL) - Western officials supervising this weekend's municipal elections in Bosnia-Herzegovina say the vote offers a greater opportunity for political change than last year's general elections.

The polls, which were to have taken place alongside last year's September general elections, are to elect municipal councils across the whole of Bosnia-Herzegovina.

An American diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, recently said the municipal elections mean a real chance for change, contrary to the general elections last year when everybody expected victory for the main nationalist parties. The diplomat added that the municipal elections would help bring some new people and ideas onto the political scene in Bosnia.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which is overseeing the poll, and diplomats in Sarajevo believe the elections are essential for introducing democracy at a "grass roots" level and critical to establishing a long-lasting peace in the region.

David Foley, spokesman for the Sarajevo mission of the OSCE, says that it is fundamentally important to have a democratic system at the lowest level. Foley says the OSCE wants the elections to be "fair, credible and safe." Foley adds that the organization has boosted the number of international observers at the local level, where a few votes can determine who governs a municipality.

The OSCE, which estimates the cost of the ballot at $50 million, says more than 2.5 million people have registered to vote on September 13 and 14. The OSCE did not say how many refugees had registered from abroad, or how many displaced people within Bosnia were on the list. Nearly half of Bosnia's pre-war population of 4.3 million is now living in a different place from where they were in 1991, making organization of the elections a logistical nightmare.

But Chris Bennett, a spokesman for the International Crisis Group in Sarajevo, gives the OSCE "good marks" for logistics and overall observation. These were two areas roundly criticized after last year's general elections, and a large part of the reason for the delay in holding this round of municipal voting. Bennett said the matter has obviously been taken in hand since then. Still, Bennett told RFE/RL that the electoral system itself is marred by fraud at the state level and he called for alternative electoral systems to be introduced.

The International Crisis Group also cites alleged violations by Bosnia's hardline Serb Democratic Party (SDS), which continues to support indicted war crimes suspect Radovan Karadzic, as a major flaw in the election campaign.

Bosnian Serb President Biljana Plavsic, backed by the United States and other western powers, has been locked in a power struggle with Karadzic. Tension between the two has risen sharply in recent days.

The Karadzic camp fears the local polls, in which Bosnian Muslims and "ethnically cleansed" Croats are to participate, could lead to the Bosnian Serbs losing areas under their control.

The International community's High Representative in Bosnia, Carlos Westendorp, earlier said the presence of war crimes suspects in Bosnia had a harmful effect on the social climate, but "no direct influence" on this weekend's poll.

The Balkan Institute, a non-profit organization based in Washington, has also been critical of the upcoming municipal elections, pointing to the lack of freedom of movement and the Plavsic-Karadzic power struggle. The Institute's Director, Steven Walker, has said conditions on the ground will give opponents of the Dayton peace accord a stronger hand, in particular in Serb and Croat-dominated areas. Walker said those people resisting Dayton will only become more encouraged and emboldened in their resistance because "they will have the stamp of legitimacy an election brings."

The elections will not be easy, coming at a time when tension between Bosnia's three ethnic communities --Croats, Muslims and Serbs -- remains high. Security is a central issue both for Bosnians and international officials alike. More than 5,000 soldiers of the NATO-led stabilization force in Bosnia (SFOR) and 1,900 United Nations policemen will be placed on maximum alert and local police will also be mobilized for the event.

Despite the tense atmosphere and last-minute threats of boycotts by and Croat and Serb nationalist parties -- the Serb SDS backed away from its threat yesterday -- western officials argue the elections must go forward. They say if the municipal elections do not take place, it will substantially weaken the prospect of making progress toward peace through the electoral process. But whether elected representatives will be allowed to take their seats in municipal councils remains far from certain.