Over a week after Bosnia-Herzegovina’s national and local elections on October 2nd, vote counting continues amid claims of corruption, protests, and a surprise change in electoral laws, showing that little has changed in the country following months of heightened politicoethnic tensions.
With one exception, election results followed the same trend as twenty-five years of ethno-centric politics, and the country’s enduring ethnic rifts between the three main ethnic groups: Croats, Bosniaks, and Serbians. But a close-call race for the Serbian regional presidency, in which both candidates claim victory, has led to massive protests in the Serbian regional capital. Changes to election laws that were announced just after polls closed, impacting how the election results play out politically in the Bosnian-Croatian regional parliament, are also causing both consternation and delight.
Initial Election Results
In the three races for the tripartite national presidency—split between the country’s three main ethnic groups of Serbs, Croats, and Bosnians—two out of three had uncontested winners: the Serbian and Bosnian seats. The Croatian seat was briefly contested.
On election night, the predicted winner for the Bosnian seat of the presidency, Bakir Izetbegovic—leader of the main Bosniak political party, the Party of Democratic Action, SDA—conceded the race to his opponent Denis Becirevic, who led him by 100,000 votes. Becirevic ran on a reformist platform to change ethnocentric politics as the candidate for eleven opposition (largely Bosniak) parties, while Izetbegovic stuck to an ethno-nationalist platform.
Another clear-cut victory was that of Serb nationalist Zeljka Cvijanovic, from the leading Bosnian Serb party, the Alliance of Independent Social Democrats, SNSD, defeating opposition leader Mirko Sarovic of the Serb Democratic Party.
The two controversial races were for the Croatian seat on the national presidency and the presidency of the country’s regional Serbian entity Republika Srpska.
Incumbent Croat Zeljko Komsic from the Democratic Front garnered the lead in votes for the Croatian seat on the national presidency. But the caucus of Croatian political parties dismissed Komsic’s victory as illegitimate, attributing it mainly to Bosniak votes, and threatened to block the formation of a government in the Bosniak-Croat region, the Federation of BiH (FBiH), if Komsic wins.
Then just after the polls were closed, High Representative Christian Schmidt, announced a change to election laws in the Bosniak-Croat region that included scrapping blocking mechanisms and changing how deputies are elected to the upper chamber of the regional parliament. The timing caused some consternation, as the changes are seen by Bosniaks as an undemocratic concession to the disgruntled Croats. Croats, however, seem appeased.
The most contentious race, though, is for the presidency of the Republika Srpska, the Serb-dominated region of Bosnia. In the initial vote count, pro-Russian, Serbian nationalist Milorad Dodik, leader of the Alliance of Independent Social Democrats (SNSD), came in with a slight lead over the opposition candidate Jelena Trivić, an economics professor from the more centrist opposition Party of Democratic Progress. Both have claimed victory, with Trivić also claiming voter fraud by the SNSD. Her supporters took to the streets in massive protests over the weekend, claiming the election was rigged.
Dodik is the outgoing Serb representative on the national presidency but decided to run for the Serbian regional presidency this election, leaving the national presidency to his close ally, Željka Cvijanović. He is strongly nationalistic and known for downplaying the Srebrenica genocide, the worst incidence of violence during the Bosnian war of 1995 when 8,000 Bosnian Muslims were killed by Serbs in the town of Srebrenica. He has threatened to lead Serbians into secession more than once, the latest time late in 2021.
The Intricate Election System
The tiny country in the Balkans has the most complex system of governance in Europe, and perhaps in the world: a construction of the U.S.-sponsored Dayton Peace Accord reached in 1995 to end the violence that followed the breakup of communist Yugoslavia in 1991. Situated between Catholic Croatia and Eastern Orthodox Serbia, the territory is home to Muslim Bosnians as well as Catholic Croatians, and Eastern Orthodox Serbians. According to the 2013 census, Bosnian Croats represent 15.4% of the population country-wide, Bosniaks 50.1%, and Serbs 30.8%. From 1992 to 1995, the country was the scene of the worst ethnic violence in the turbulent breakup of Yugoslavia.
The Dayton Peace Accord split the country into two main administrative entities: the Serb-dominated Republika Srpska, or RS, and the Bosnian-Croatian majority Federation of BiH (FBiH), each with their own presidents and two-chamber parliament. Within each of these territories are also numerous local and municipal governments.
The two regional entities operate very independently, collaborating loosely through a largely symbolic national government that mostly serves to set foreign policy. The national government consists of a bicameral parliament and a tripartite, interethnic presidency split between the three main ethnic groups.
Above all these sits the Office of the High Representative, a Western diplomatic mission of sorts—some call it a viceroy—that oversees the civilian implementation of the Dayton Agreement. The office also has wide powers to make binding decisions, such as changes in election laws, in order to maintain peace according to the outline of the Dayton Agree.
Within this system, ethnicity itself also plays an important role, as both politicians and voters must declare their ethnicity since many political offices are divided among the country’s three majority ethnicities, with some reserved for minorities, and voting for candidates takes place along ethnic lines, as well, in some cases.
The agreement has maintained peace in the country for nearly thirty years, but it also maintains the country’s ethnic rifts and ethno-nationalist politics. To further complicate matters, the attempted transition from communism to Western-style capitalism created a class of elite oligarchs, with little economic dynamism trickling down to the average citizen. Bosnia-Herzegovina is also highly susceptible to foreign influence of all kinds. The situation has led to corruption and stagnation in the country. For example, it has been trying for years to become part of both NATO and the EU, though without even reaching candidate status.
Election results show that nothing has changed in the country, with ethnic tension at its highest in years.
A Tense Year
Last week’s elections came on the heels of a year of ethnic political manoeuvring that had outsiders fearing a new eruption of ethnic violence. Dodik threatened to pull the Republika Srpska out of the country’s national institutions, while Bosnian Croat nationalists clamoured for changes to regional electoral laws claiming they lacked fair representation, also threatening to start legal action to separate from the country if their demands weren’t met. Ethnic minorities such as Romanians and Jews have also brought cases before the European Court of Human Rights concerning how the Dayton Agreement system prevents them from holding many public offices.
Zagreb had also been lobbying for the changes in election laws. Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenković publicly boasted that the Croatian government has actively participated in talks with Schmidt—Bosnia’s High Representative—about the election changes, though Schmidt maintains that he made the decision on his own. Opponents of the changes—Bosniaks—fear they overly favour Croatians, but analysts find legitimacy in Croat claims of insufficient representation and see the changes as addressing some corruption problems. Schmidt had initially announced the changes in August, after elections had been called, but backed off when protests erupted.
In the tense race for the Serbian regional presidency, Dodik was ahead by 30,000 votes, Radio Free Europe reported on Monday, October 10th. Citing reports of irregularities, central election authorities in Sarajevo have ordered the unsealing of ballot boxes and a recount at some 1,000 polling stations before determining the final totals. Claims of election fraud are nothing new in Bosnia-Herzegovina, though.
The political and social fallout of changes to the election also remains to be seen.
“The mandate of the Office of the High Representative (OHR) is to protect Dayton [the Dayton Agreement], and [Schmidt] acted in that way,” said Damir Marusic, Senior Fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Europe Centre on the podcast Balkans Debrief. “Reinforcing Dayton means reinforcing ethnic politics. It keeps the country entrenched in Dayton dynamics.”
According to European Conservative writer, Slaviša Milačić, this is actually exactly what citizens of Bosnia-Herzegovina, from the top to the bottom of society, want. The country’s elites may have enriched themselves with corruption and ethno-national politics, and their politics—whether calls for reform away from the ethnocentric Dayton Agreement system or threats of secession by Serbs and Croats—help protect those interests, but their constituencies seem to have no desire to break from ethnocentric politics either.
Milačić cites the fact that in the 2013 census over “96% of the population declared themselves Bosniak, Croat, or Serb, and 99% of those who did so also indicated their corresponding language and religion, patterns seen in all censuses and elections in Bosnia since the end of the Ottoman period.”
Thankfully peace has prevailed, but the reality of ethnic divisions on the ground in Bosnia-Herzegovina has not changed since 1991.