Bosnia’s Elections: A Storm on the Horizon?

On October 3, Bosnia-Herzegovina held general elections to select representatives at the cantonal, regional and federal levels. Although Bosnia’s civil war ended 15 years ago with the signing of the Dayton Accord, the results of this election indicate that ethnic rivalries continue to linger. With a population of 4.6 million, Bosnia is demographically divided between Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims), ethnic Croats and ethnic Serbs. Reflecting this diversity, Bosnia’s postwar political structure consists of two semi-autonomous regional entities – the Bosniak and Croat dominated Bosnia-Herzegovina Federation and the Serb controlled Republic Srpska – and a complex central government which includes a tripartite presidency, national parliament and other state institutions based out of the capital Sarajevo. This precarious political system, overseen by the European Union and NATO, has been in a state of deadlock since Bosnia’s last general elections were held in 2006.   

This time around, Bakir Izetbegovic of the Party of Democratic Action (SDA) won the race for the presidency’s Muslim seat, while Zelijko Komsic of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) was elected to the Croat presidential seat. During the run up to these elections, both Mr. Izetbegovic and Mr. Komsic ran on politically moderate platforms emphasizing reconciliation and the importance of an autonomous and unified multi-ethnic Bosnian state. Following the announcement of his presidency, Mr. Izetbegovic reiterated his commitment to these ideals while stating, “we are going to stabilize the situation in Bosnia and bring a better future of the citizens of Bosnia.”

There is little doubt that Bosnia is in need of economic reform and political consolidation. Following a period of relative dynamism, Bosnia has grown stagnant in recent years, as  sluggish economic development and an ongoing political stalemate has contributed to social unrest and heightened regional grievances. Highlighting the gravity of Bosnia’s economic woes, the Bosnia-Herzegovina Federation faces the distinct possibility of bankruptcy due in part to huge pension payments that are owed to Bosnian veterans of the 1992-1995 civil war. However despite the magnitude of Bosnia’s economic challenges, progressive reform is not a priority for all those who were elected to office on October 3.

For example Milorad Dodik, a hard-line ethnic nationalist and leader of the Alliance of Independent Social Democrats, won the parliamentary vote in the Serb Republic. During his campaign, Mr. Dodik threatened secession from Bosnia, stated his unwillingness to cooperate with the Bosniak dominated Party of Democratic Action, and made the audacious claim that modern day Bosnia is an “impossible state.” My. Dodik’s antagonistic style is illustrated by a campaign video in which a monster truck adorned with his party’s emblem runs over two cars displaying the names and logos of opposing parties (watch video here). With Bosnians consistently voting along ethnic lines and hard-line nationalists such as Mr. Dodik gaining popular support, there are fears that Bosnia’s long term economic development will be stymied, and worse, that ethnic tensions will snowball into violence. As Tomas Valasek of the London-based Centre for European Reform has stated, while it is true that the Dayton Accord was signed 15 years ago the dynamics of Bosnia’s civil war have continued through other means.

As is often the case with Bosnia, this untenable state of affairs will likely mean that change will have to come from outside the country. Since the 2006 elections the EU has been pushing Bosnia to strengthen its central government and undertake substantial economic reforms as a precondition for EU membership. Similar conditions have also been placed on Bosnia for membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. For its part, NATO has voiced concern that a relapse of ethnic violence or a breakdown of the Bosnian union would have serious repercussions for security in the Balkans as well as Europe as a whole. The inability of Bosnia’s elected officials to agree on a way forward has not only undermined Bosnia’s economic and political stability, it has made the prospects for membership in such organizations distant and remote. In an attempt to increase diplomatic pressure, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton traveled to Sarajevo on October 12 to make an impassioned plea for Bosnian unity. Secretary Clinton stressed that Bosnia could not move forward unless Serbs, Muslims and Croats figure out a way to put their country ahead of ethnicity: “we cannot be dragged down by what was done to our grandparents and great-grandparents, or even in this case, our parents.”

Bosnia now faces months of political jostling as politicians and parties negotiate for cabinet seats and for control over Bosnia’s large state owned companies. When the dust settles, this could prove to have repercussions for Bosnia’s relations with the West as well as the long-term viability of peace and stability in the Balkans. 

Jonathan Preece
Research Analyst, NATO Council of Canada


Further Reading: Bosnia and Herzegovina still divided 15 years after war, Early Results Indicate Split on Bosnia’s Future, Muslim Moderate and Hardline Serb set to share Bosnian Presidency, Clinton, Citing Work with Obama, Urges Unity in Bosnia, Bosnia Vote points to Deadlock on Ethnic Lines, Bosnia’s election: So this is Democracy, EU Official Urges New Bosnia to do better on its path to EU Membership.

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