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Bosnia: Voters To Look For Progress In Weekend Election

Prague, 10 September 1998 (RFE/RL) -- This weekend, some 2.5 million Bosnians are to take part in the second general elections since the 1995 Dayton accord, which created a Bosnian state divided into a Muslim-Croat Federation and a Serb Republic.

In the run-up to the September 12-13 poll, the stories from the field sound much like those from the first contest in 1996: a nationalist party, in this year's case the Croats, threatening a boycott; candidates being struck from voter lists for campaign violations; and posters of twice indicted war criminal Radovan Karadzic being displayed during campaign rallies.

But Ambassador Robert Barry, head of the Bosnia mission of the Organization For Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), told RFE/RL recently that the '98 contest will be a good deal different:

"I think the voters this year are going to hold their elected representatives more accountable than they have in the past -- that is they are going to be looking at them and asking, 'did the country progress along the lines I wanted it to when I voted for this person in the past?' Are they working for a better future for me or are they more concerned with their own future? If I elect these people are they going to create the kind of country my children will want to grow up in or not? Are they more interested in development of the economy or more concentrated on issues of the past and in fighting with each other? I believe people want to get on with implementing the peace agreement and get on with the business of cooperating with each other for a better future."

There are other hallmarks setting apart this year's general elections in Bosnia. Candidates filled out financial disclosures that were later posted in full on the world wide computer web. They also debated each other on national television, though key non-appearances by leading candidates marred the credibility of debate. And, for the first time, NATO peacekeeping forces are slated to play more of a "background role" on voting day. In '96, polling station after polling station was manned by NATO forces as if part of the battlefront.

But one thing remains the same -- Bosnia's general elections are still complex, with over 83 candidates, multiple parties and coalitions in competition.

This weekend, Bosnians will be choosing a three member collective Presidency: one representative from each of the main ethnic groups of Serbs, Croats and Muslims. They will also elect parliaments in each entity --the Serb Republic and the Muslim-Croat Federation-- and a national parliament with delegates from both sides.

The Serb Republic will choose its President and it is this contest that is billed as a key race to watch. It pits incumbent Momcilo Krajisnik, Karadzic's long-time right-hand man, against Zivko Radisic, an ally of pro-Dayton President Biljana Plavsic.

Plavsic and her three-party "Sloga" coalition will be closely observed to see if they maintain power at the expense of radical Serbs. Latest polls show Plavsic, who deposed the former ruling SDS party with Western help last year, comfortably ahead.

Overall, the big question is whether moderate political forces will make gains at the expense of nationalist parties. Nicole Szulc, OSCE spokesperson and senior policy advisor, told RFE/RL:

"Voters will surprise you every time. That's true not only in Bosnia but anywhere in the world. Voters answer to questions that affect their daily lives. In that regard, I think we will see big changes. Do we expect nationalist parties to be completely defeated? Of course not. Elections are a process, they are not a panacea."

There has been some criticism that any gains made by moderate forces in the elections come at the hands of "international arm-twisting" by Americans and Europeans. The Bosnian branch of the International Crisis Group (ICG), an independent body monitoring the peace process, argue that a new electoral system needs to be established to encourage cross-community voting and to force politicians to seek support from ethnic groups other than their own.

U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was recently in the region for talks with officials and said that much of what remains to be seen in Bosnia is "disturbing." As Albright put it, "Bosnia's peace is not yet self-sustaining."

But there is a general feeling among international officials in Bosnia that the peace there will not become any more self-sustaining even after this round of elections.

(Nikola Gurovic from RFE/RL Slavic Service contributed to this story)