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In Bosnia, You Can Buy Anything Online, Even Votes (They're 25 Euros)

Election posters on the main street of the eastern Bosnian town of Srebrenica
Election posters on the main street of the eastern Bosnian town of Srebrenica

International election observers agree that vote buying is a historical problem that plagues elections around the world.

But the practice recently has become so blatant in Bosnia-Herzegovina that voters have been advertising online to sell their votes.

Such advertisements turned up on -- one of Bosnia's most popular websites for buying and selling goods and services -- during the final two weeks before local elections on October 2.

RFE/RL contacted one Bosnian man who was selling his vote through the website for 50 Bosnian convertible marks -- the equivalent of 25 euros.

"Politicians don't care about the people anyway," said the man, who wished to remain anonymous. "If we sell our vote, at least we get something for ourselves."

"A vote goes for 50 convertible marks," the vote seller told RFE/RL. "Some ask for more. One person called me and told me he'd give me 100 marks if I would take a photo of the [marked] ballot and send it to a certain phone number."

Another self-declared vote seller in Bosnia who wanted to remain anonymous, rather than face a possible five-year prison sentence for the illegal activity, told RFE/RL he was approached by a candidate from eastern Sarajevo who offered him 25 euros for his vote.

"I also know that in rural areas people will sell their votes for a bag of flour, 10 liters of cooking oil, or 10 kilos of sugar," he said. "I've seen it with my own eyes."

More than 3.3 million voters are eligible to cast ballots in the two constituent states that comprise Bosnia-Herzegovina.

There are races for 74 municipal councils, four city councils, and 131 mayoral offices in the Bosniak-Croatia federation.

In the Serb entity, Republika Srpska, there are 10 mayoral races, as well as elections for 57 municipal councils and six city councils. Locals and outsiders alike will be watching for signs there of whether an erosion of popularity that began in municipal elections four years ago continues for that republic's Serb nationalist president, Milorad Dodik.

Thomas Rymer, a spokesman for the OSCE's election monitoring division (ODIHR), says his organization has heard allegations and collected evidence on vote buying in many of the OSCE's 57 participant countries.

"Vote buying is a problem that actually reinforces itself in some places," Rymer told RFE/RL. "Where this is more prevalent as a practice, you generally have a combination of factors -- economic, as well as a lack of trust in the electoral system -- so that what [voters] feel they are giving up is worth less than what they're being paid for it."

"If people are aware that votes are being bought and sold, then it again lowers people's trust in their electoral system and then makes them question even more the value of their vote," he said.

OSCE monitoring missions are not tasked with preventing election irregularities.

Rather, observers document complaints and violations -- reporting them to relevant local authorities responsible for enforcing the given country’s election laws.

Further, due to what Rymer described as operational priorities in the OSCE area and limited budget resources, ODIHR has opted not to send a monitoring mission to observe the October 2 voting.

In October 2014, the OSCE's election-monitoring division documented multiple complaints about vote buying and voters going into polling booths with premarked ballots. (file photo)
In October 2014, the OSCE's election-monitoring division documented multiple complaints about vote buying and voters going into polling booths with premarked ballots. (file photo)

The OSCE division's latest report on Bosnia was about the October 2014 general elections, when ODIHR monitors documented multiple complaints about vote buying and voters going into polling booths with premarked ballots -- one of the methods used by vote buyers to ensure vote sellers cast their ballots the way they have promised.

Other complaints in 2014 documented by the OSCE included "campaign activity" outside polling stations, denial of access to polling stations for accredited observers, proxy voting, ballot-box stuffing, and vote counting discrepancies.

"What the report from 2014 states is that these complaints about vote buying, as well as the other irregularities, were filed with the relevant authorities," Ryman said. "There didn’t appear to have been a real serious investigation into the allegations that were made. It seems like there wasn’t enough due attention paid by the relevant authorities -- the [Central] Election Commission in this case -- to the nature of those complaints and whether they were valid."

RFE/RL has spoken with voters who admitted taking payments in 2014 equivalent to 50 euros for supporting a whole list of candidates from one political party.

None of the parties allegedly involved in vote buying would comment to RFE/RL about the practice.

One Sarajevo man said he discovered from "a distant relative" how to contact a vote buyer from one of the political parties offering cash for votes.

After registering and agreeing to sell his vote, he said he was met on election day by a woman in front of the polling station in Sarajevo's Novi Grad municipality.

"She gave me instructions on how to vote and said that I'd get the money seven days after the elections," he told RFE/RL. "She gave me a piece of paper with the names I needed to circle on my ballot, in case I forgot."

The vote seller said he only received his illegal payment after spending two months "going after the money they promised me."

"I have no idea how they confirmed that I voted for them," he said. "After the elections, when I first went to ask for the money at their party headquarters, they took out a list of about 150 people from my district and they found my name."

"I had been labeled with a green marker," he said. "Those who had registered but did not vote were labeled with a red marker."

Rymer said different "confirmation" systems have been worked out by those who illegally buy votes.

"You have [some cases] where the ballot is premarked for them, so just the very act of trying to change the vote that's already been marked would invalidate the ballot," he explained.

Another confirmation method vote buyers use is to require a person to photograph their ballot in the voting booth before they drop it into the ballot box.

"In a number of participating states in the OSCE where we have observed elections, this has led to the actual prohibition of cameras in the polling booth," Rymer said.

Another technique is used in districts where support for the opponent of a vote buyer’s party or candidate is strong.

"It’s not vote buying but registration renting," Ryman explained. "They pay the voters to give them their voter registration for a day -- on election day. So what they do is actually subtract a vote that they’re fairly sure will be for another candidate."

Self-declared vote sellers told RFE/RL they only feared prosecution if they publicly discussed the illegal practice in the media.

One man told RFE/RL: "I never had any fears [about the scheme itself], and neither did the politician who is the head of the party [that paid for votes]."

With reporting by RFE/RL Balkan Service correspondents Mirna Sadikovic in Sarajevo and Slobodan Kostic in Prague; translations by Deana Kjuka

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