Accessibility links

Breaking News

Five Things To Know As A Divided Bosnia Tiptoes Through Fraught Elections

Ballots are printed for the general elections planned for October 2. There have been some minor, largely technical, changes aimed at cleaning up the vote.
Ballots are printed for the general elections planned for October 2. There have been some minor, largely technical, changes aimed at cleaning up the vote.

Bosnia-Herzegovina's 3.4 million registered voters can choose from a huge slate of more than 100 parties and coalitions when they go to the polls on October 2.

But the beleaguered Balkan state's postelection landscape will almost certainly be dominated by many of the same personalities that have thrived on existential crisis and patronage for years, and even amplified their ethnic vitriol in campaigning ahead of this weekend.

And once the ballots are tallied, experts warn that there are few obvious incentives for increased interethnic cooperation on overdue reforms despite threats by an international overseer to unilaterally and fundamentally change one of the bedrocks of Bosnia's postwar democracy.

"I don't expect these elections to be transformative," says Toby Vogel, a Western Balkans analyst and senior associate of the Democratization Policy Council who has been critical of Western failures in Bosnia. "At the end of today, the problems in Bosnia are not linked to who's in power and who's in opposition, but to how power is structured and the exercise of power structure. These are structural problems that go back to the Dayton peace accords and the constitutional setup that they contain."

But that doesn't mean there's nothing to see.

There are potentially tight races among the tripartite federal presidency's ethnically apportioned seats, including an unprecedented challenge for the majority Bosniaks' seat. A handful of races in the upper house of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina -- whose seats are chosen indirectly, after the elections -- could dramatically affect obstruction efforts that have paralyzed government for years. And the results could go a long way toward answering whether Bosnia is fated, at least for the near future, to remain one of Europe's most vulnerable hotspots.

What's In Play?

Bosnia remains sharply divided along ethnic lines drawn up in the mid-1990s to coax its "constituent peoples" -- Bosniaks, Serbs, and Croats -- out of the bloodiest of the conflicts that followed the breakup of Yugoslavia.

The country is organized into a multiethnic national government formally in charge of foreign and fiscal policy but with many powers devolved to a majority Bosniak and Croat Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina that's further divided into 10 cantons, a Serb-dominated Republika Srpska, and a tiny self-governed district called Brcko.

Efforts to introduce alternatives to the 1995 Dayton agreement have never taken hold and Bosnia's government on the national, entity, and local levels has been rendered largely ineffective as each of its three main ethnic groups seeks advantage where it can.

Meanwhile, Bosnian Serbs have accelerated their secessionist efforts for Republika Srpska. Ethnic Croats, badly outnumbered in their shared constituency with Bosniaks, have demanded electoral reforms and kept up obstructionist tactics to press for greater representation in elected posts. And Bosniaks have doubled down on their majority advantage by opposing compromise that could water down their grip on the federation.

The resulting dysfunction and frustration have eroded public confidence and fueled an exodus that is among the worst in the world as tens of thousands of Bosnians leave each year to seek jobs and stability abroad.

Who's Being Elected To What?

Bosnia's eighth general elections include races to fill the tripartite national presidency and the national parliament, the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina's legislature and the assembly of its 10 cantons, and the Republika Srpska's presidency and its legislature.

The Bosnian presidency's three seats are earmarked for the three constituent ethnicities but are elected based on a single Republika Srpska constituency and a dual federation constituency that leaves Croats vulnerable to being outvoted by majority Bosniaks.

The election of the Croatian member has been particularly contentious since three of the past four federation-wide votes have elected moderate Croat Zeljko Komsic over rivals supported by the strongest Croatian party, the nationalist Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ).

This time, Komsic's only challenger is HDZ candidate Borjana Kristo. One analyst speculated that the HDZ did not appear to be campaigning aggressively for Kristo and that her loss to Komsic could help further that party's "victimization narrative...because postelection reforms are the ultimate goal."

Zeljko Komsic
Zeljko Komsic

The Bosniak seat in the presidency looks to be among the most tightly contested, with Bakir Izetbegovic, a two-term holder and son of a signatory to the Dayton agreement, facing a challenge for his third term led by a university professor, Denis Becirovic, who is backed by an unprecedented alliance of 11 political parties.

The race for the presidency's Serbian seat pits front-runner Zeljka Cvijanovic, a close ally of the Bosnian Serbs' mostly unrivaled leader, Milorad Dodik, against three political veterans.

Dodik is himself running for a return as Republika Srpska's president, one of the many leadership posts he has occupied in the past.

Tight races for either Dodik or his hand-picked successor for the national presidency could signal an emerging movement among Bosnian Serbs away from Dodik's divisiveness and the ongoing threat of secession by Republika Srpska.

Elsewhere, analysts will be closely watching the outcome of key races in the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina's upper house.

"Federation polls are particularly fraught because control of the federation hinges on one or two swing seats in the entity's upper legislative chamber, the House of Peoples," the International Crisis Group (ICG) observed in a recent analysis.

Majority Bosniak parties have allied with Croatian politicians in the past in the House of Peoples, and flipping a handful of seats this time could allow them to block -- or prevent Croats from blocking -- appointments to top government posts on the national and entity levels.

"Competition for those extra swing seats is fierce," the ICG said.

After EU- and U.S.-mediated talks on electoral reforms collapsed in the spring, no deal was implemented and disputes over the outcome of the October 2 voting may well be challenged by Croats if Bosniaks manage to win control of the House of Peoples.

What's Different About These Elections?

One of the most notable aspects of these elections is that much of the real action will kick off only after the votes are counted.

The international community's high representative to Bosnia, currently German Christian Schmidt, threatened to impose sweeping electoral changes over the objections of the leaders of all three constituent ethnic groups before the voting.

But in the end, he settled for stopgap measures and the threat of postelection pressure on many of the same leaders and parties who've resisted reforms for decades.

Schmidt is expected to pressure parliamentary parties after the vote to agree on some version of reforms to address Croats' grievance of underrepresentation due to their minority status within the federation and to make it harder for parties to block legislation and appointments at the federation level.

The ICG noted that the high representative could afford to wait until the federation's 10 cantonal assemblies first gather a month or so after the election. But as the ICG warned in its analysis, "once the preliminary results become public a day or two after the vote, it will be clear which side has carried the day, and any intervention will look like trying to change the result after the fact."

Pushback from local leaders and Schmidt's restraint didn't prevent change. In late July, he imposed what's variously been described as a "transparency package" or an "integrity package" to shore up some aspects of the vote. It was the least controversial of three widely speculated proposals from Schmidt, as it appeared designed to avoid conferring any advantages to any one side.

There have been other minor, largely technical, changes aimed at cleaning up the vote. Ballot papers will have to be stamped and signed by polling-station-committee members to avoid the hoarding of unmarked ballots. Training and accrediting of election-day observers was improved. Voting booths will face observers and polling-station workers to guard against individuals submitting multiple ballots or photographing their ballots in order to prove how they voted to party organizers. And an e-portal was created in an attempt to prevent mail-in ballot fraud.

Don't Look For Young People To Save Bosnia

With so many familiar faces atop ballots and following a campaign of intense ethnic nationalism that some observers say is nearly unprecedented since Bosnia's violence of the 1990s, experts warn against placing too much faith in young voters' pushback against the status quo.

Hundreds of thousands of young Bosnians have emigrated over the past decade, chipping away at national resiliency and optimism.

But it's not just emigration that's the problem.

Analyst Vogel says that 10, 20, even 30 years of dominance by ethnically divisive leaders has spawned some cynicism, voter abstention, and anger.

"So I can see a generational dimension. But the problem is also that these are kids who have been schooled, literally, in ethnically, largely segregated schools with little interaction with other kids from other communities, and who have been exposed to this toxic propaganda coming from the very top of the government and their party landscape down to them for decades," Vogel said. "So I'm not necessarily terribly optimistic about the newer generations."

And he's not alone.

Samir Bechari, a longtime activist against ethnic segregation within Bosnia's school system and a research officer at the Balkan Forum, an NGO, said recently that not all of the country's young people were "virtuous," thanks to toxic ethnic divides.

"When it comes to young people, we are too idealistic about young people," he said. "Young people are also nationalistically oriented, they are also corrupt, they also engage in nepotism. And I don't know how we expect for young people to be any different -- for young politicians especially -- to be any different from their political mothers and fathers, if those young people have been educated in schools that preach nationalism and that preach segregation. In some cases they not only preach it, they do it."

Are There International Implications?

All of those are only the internal forces weighing on Bosnia's elections.

U.S., EU, Russian, Turkish, Serbian, Hungarian, and Croatian geopolitical rivalries are compounding the pressures, especially as the diplomatic stakes have risen along with tensions since Russia invaded Ukraine in February in Europe's biggest conflict since the Balkan wars of the 1990s.

The war in Ukraine has exacerbated fears of violence if breakaway efforts continue to tear at Bosnian statehood. It has also fed Moscow's willingness to gamble more heavily on allies like Dodik to disrupt European integration efforts in the Balkans.

Meanwhile, the international high representative to Bosnia holds broad authority to safeguard civilian aspects of Dayton. But his post is heavily reliant on international support that has splintered as what was intended to be a transitional system nears the end of its third decade in existence.

Ahead of these elections, the United States and the European Union reportedly pressed for Schmidt to force electoral reforms on Bosnia, but the international community is far from united over the extent to which it would like him to impose solutions on Bosnia through his so-called "Bonn powers."

Russia has long championed secessionist Dodik, and more recently Moscow has allied with Beijing to threaten to strip the high representative's powers.

In the absence of a tentative alternative to Dayton, critics fear that the fate of Bosnia is inextricably tied to the fate of the high representative, its main bulwark against the forces of disintegration.

  • 16x9 Image

    Andy Heil

    Andy Heil is a Prague-based senior correspondent covering central and southeastern Europe and the North Caucasus, and occasionally science and the environment. Before joining RFE/RL in 2001, he was a longtime reporter and editor of business, economic, and political news in Central Europe, including for the Prague Business Journal, Reuters, Oxford Analytica, and Acquisitions Monthly, and a freelance contributor to the Christian Science Monitor, Respekt, and Tyden.