Before Ukraine, the worst conflict in Europe since 1945 was the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina sparked by the collapse of Yugoslavia in the 1990s. The region’s multiethnic population of Croats, Bosnian Muslims (aka Bosniaks), and Serbs wrestled for control from 1992-1995, when the West finally helped end the fighting, culminating in the Dayton Accords. The deal created a power-sharing peace agreement between the three ethnicities.
Nearly 30 years later, political tensions are rising again – with Bosnian Serbs challenging state institutions and threatening to secede as Croats are vying to gain more political representation – and Bosnia’s economy is struggling, raising the specter of another crisis. Against this backdrop, Bosnia and Herzegovina's voters head to the polls for presidential and parliamentary elections on Sunday.
How things should work. The state is divided into two autonomous entities, the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (FBiH) and Republika Srpska (RS). Both have regional legislatures that together form a bicameral parliament, and the presidency is shared by three elected members representing the “constituent nations” – a Bosniak, a Bosnian Croat, and a Bosnian Serb. The Office of the High Representative (OHR), an international institution, was established by the Dayton Accords to oversee the peace deal. The complexity was intentional – aimed at keeping power decentralized.
Pushing reforms. When it was leaked in late July that High Representative Christian Schmidt wanted to amend parliamentary delegate election procedures and grant new powers to the Central Election Commission (CEC), accusations flew that he was trying to undermine those three constituencies.
The main point of contention? Schmidt wanted to change how FBiH parliamentary delegates get elected. The existing procedure codifies a 1-1-1 voting process, requiring at least one Bosniak, one Bosnian Croat, and one Bosnian Serb represent each of the Federation’s 10 local bodies, or cantons. But Schmidt wanted to remove the requirement of equal representation to allocate parliamentary seats in closer proportion to each canton’s ethnic population, in the name of representative democracy. It’s no secret that Croats would benefit most from such a change – canton demographics would dictate a shift in at least two parliamentary seats from Bosniak to Croat delegates. Given this reality, Bosniaks cried foul, likening the proposal to “ethnic gerrymandering” and turning out in Sarajevo for three days of protests.
In response, Schmidt decided to forego the parliamentary reforms and instead pushed through a series of CEC-focused technical amendments geared toward preventing electoral fraud. Schmidt insists, however, that more election reforms are needed. In fact, he has explicitly left OHR-imposed reform on the table, imploring leaders to work together to implement the necessary changes themselves.
Will election results be trusted? The electoral reform push and resulting protests have led to uncertainty around the election. In the aftermath of Schmidt’s leaked proposal, Croat politicians warned voters that the election would be illegitimate in the absence of parliamentary election reform. Such fearmongering has been a consistent feature of Croat nationalist party messaging. In fact, The Croatian National Parliament, a body representing Bosnian Croat political parties, has for months been teasing the possibility of boycotting Sunday's election. On the other hand, Bosniak politicians, fearing the loss of legislative power, have also ensured that their base remains mobilized to demonstrate, underscoring the need for renewed protests if Schmidt does follow through with additional reforms – even if this happens after the election.
Malik Sakić, a Bosniak and president of the European Democracy Youth Network, a coalition of young political leaders and civic society activists, condemned Schmidt’s proposed reforms. “[They would] create even more problems for the people of BiH by increasing existing hatreds among people and even leading to increased violence,” he said, hinting at deep-seated, ethnically motivated resentments that stem from the 1992-1995 Bosnian War.
Serbs aren’t happy either. Many Bosnian Serbs in Republika Srpska are upset too, but for different reasons. Obrad Kesic, director of the Republika Srpska Office for Cooperation, Trade, and Investment, argues that Schmidt granted disproportionate judicial and punitive power to the CEC – a traditionally Western-aligned institution – in an attempt to tip the election scales in favor of sidelined RS opposition parties. In his view, the new powers give the CEC the ability to remove the head of a party’s ticket based on any number of broadly defined “technical violations,” which significantly undermines perceptions of election legitimacy.
Kesic compares the voter uncertainty to the US’ recent struggle with perceptions of election legitimacy. “In BiH, we’re now in a similar situation where we risk leaving a major question mark over election results, regardless of the outcome, which creates a scenario for even greater instability and crisis,” he said.
Kesic’s argument is in line with the majority of RS voters, who see the CEC-focused electoral reform as a Western-backed attempt to remove Bosnian Serb separatist leader Milorad Dodik, a member of the tripartite presidency in BiH, from power, and to secure victory for the opposition. Dodik called Schmidt’s electoral reform push a breach of the constitution and publicly declared that the RS is now justified in defying future OHR decision-making. Such strategizing could lead to violence again in the Balkans.
If Dodik – a self-proclaimed RS secessionist – follows through on opposing OHR-sanctioned electoral reforms, he could pursue one of three potential scenarios: refusing to hold elections, holding separate RS elections at a later date, or pursuing RS secession. In any of those scenarios, RS police would likely need to be engaged, laying the groundwork for election-related violence that could quickly spread.
Ahead of this weekend's election, the OSCE has sent international monitors to work alongside the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights. Workshops were held on Thursday to help authorities prosecute attempted election fraud and ensure democratic processes are protected.
The international community will be keeping a close eye on Sunday's proceedings and any further pushes for electoral reforms, wary of the potentially destabilizing effects they may have on Dodik’s secessionist ambitions and broader Balkan stability.
Sarah Waggoner is a freelance writer and international development professional based in Belgrade, Serbia.
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