Perspectives | BiH

Could change in Bosnia and Herzegovina be possible?

By - 01.12.2020

The beginning of a potentially positive process.

In October 2016, the local elections in Bosnia and Herzegovina were overwhelmingly won by the three leading ethnic parties: The Bosniak Stranka demokratske akcije (Party of Democratic Action, SDA), the Hrvatska demokratska zajednica (Croatian Democratic Union, HDZ), and the Serb Savez nezavisnih socijaldemokrata (Alliance of Independent Social Democrats, SNSD — though don’t let the words “social democrats” fool you; this is a party of nationalist action with an ethnocentric program).

These three parties won the largest number of mayoral seats in municipalities with, respectively, Bosniak, Croat and Serb ethnic majorities. As for municipal and city council elections, they won the largest number of votes in almost three quarters of the total number of municipalities.

The success of SDA in Sarajevo was particularly significant, since they won in all city and suburban municipalities except for one. Then there was the winning streak of SNSD in the largest — and de facto capital — city in Republika Srpska, Banja Luka, as well as the continuation of the decades-long domination of HDZ among Croats in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The results of this election confirmed the predominance of the ethnic-based politics that since 1990 has prevented the building of Bosnia and Herzegovina as a genuinely sovereign state or a civil multiethnic society.

Four years later, in the local elections held on November 15, 2020, things partly changed. A particular euphoria arose with the victory of the “Četvorka” (The Four) coalition in Sarajevo and the defeat of SNSD’s mayoral candidate in Banja Luka.

The beginning of a new chapter?

Now that the euphoria has quieted down and the initial enthusiasm subsided, we can see that these elections still don’t constitute the triumph of progressive forces and the left — if we agree that this notion encompasses center liberal and center left parties. Instead, these results can be cautiously interpreted as the start of a potentially positive process.

Namely, the Sarajevo-based “Četvorka” is made up of four parties with different political orientations, united in their criticism of SDA’s approach to their time in administration, which has been plagued by allegations of corruption and criminality. Two of those parties — Naša stranka (Our Party) and the Social Democratic Party (SDP) — place themselves toward the center-left of the political spectrum. However, the other two parties don’t rest on the same ideological foundations.

It would be nice for this change to be only the start of a process that would continue in the 2022 general elections.

It is definitely refreshing that “Četvorka” managed to win against the dominant SDA in most municipalities of the Sarajevo Canton, and it would be nice for this change to be only the start of a process that would continue in the 2022 general elections.

SDA went to elections burdened by numerous scandals, while many prominent members left the party, with Sarajevo as the city where they flirted with chauvinism and the war narrative. 

One of the targets of this campaign was Srđan Mandić, from the liberal Naša stranka. Therefore, his convincing victory in the race to be mayor of the Centar Municipality — although expected due to the specific demographic of voters in the most urban city municipality — is very important at a symbolic level.

The victory of Nermin Muzur, a “Četvorka” coalition candidate for the mayor of the suburban municipality of Ilidža, is symbolically important and quite convincing. He won against SDA candidate Fikret Prevljak.

References to the war period and war credits had been the central and more or less only message of Prevljak’s campaign: He was a wartime general in the Army of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina — a man with a decorated war past, somebody “who should lead us in peace because he led us in war,” and the like. 

The convincing defeat of this candidate by a relatively young opponent (at aged 35) may be a good sign that, during the 25 years of peace, many citizens have become sick and tired of the emotional blackmail by those who still live as though there was a war going on. Some other criteria are starting to become more important to them, their present and their future. This would be utterly beneficial, although it’s difficult to make general conclusions due to the diverse factors that influence the elections.

However, despite the tremendous success of “Četvorka,” its left liberal section cannot be particularly satisfied with the results.

The real winners

The real winner is the Narod i pravda (People and Justice, NiP) party, the strongest link of “Četvorka” and one that is slowly growing into the most powerful party in Sarajevo. It is composed mostly of former SDA members, and hence doesn’t differ greatly from the traditional and conservative SDA when it comes to its foundational ideological values.

The reasons for their conflict and rupture weren’t based on disagreeing about the basic concepts and foundational “truths,” but rather the manner of governing. NiP had promised a change “from the ground up,” although it is completely clear that changes in foundational narratives cannot be expected, but rather some reforms within the symbolic and ideological playground.

The president of NiP, Dino Konaković, has imposed himself as the new national leader of Bosniaks above all. However, if the policies of NiP are to genuinely produce more transparent administration and a less corrupt society (as set out in their foundational promises), it will be a great and important success. 

Stanivuković’s victory doesn’t indicate a defeat of the ideology of those promoting an independent Republika Srpska. It’s clear that his position is that of a nationalist.

SNDS, led by Milorad Dodik, has ruled over Banja Luka for the past 22 years. This pattern has now been interrupted by the victory of 27-year-old Draško Stanivuković, a young and agile politician who has been the most prominent face of the political opposition in Republika Srpska for years.

This victory is important in the sense that it shows that Dodik’s party isn’t untouchable and that primitive arrogance doesn’t always pay off. 

However, Stanivuković’s victory doesn’t indicate a defeat of the ideology of those promoting an independent Republika Srpska. It’s clear that his position is that of a nationalist: He expresses his sympathies for the World War II Chetnik movement and speaks of protecting the foundational “truths” of the ideology of Republika Srpska.

The status quo

Changes were least expected in “mixed” municipalities within the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina — the places located in Herzegovina and central Bosnia where at least two ethnic groups (Bosniaks and Croats) make up the relevant political and demographic factor. No significant changes occurred here.

The elections in these areas were greatly reduced to a de facto population census — a chance to count their fellow compatriots. Croats homogenize alongside HDZ as the carrier of Croat nationalism, while Bosniaks gather around SDA as the flagbearer of Bosniak nationalism. The policies of these two parties are often looked upon as a continuation of the war through different means.

Civil — as opposed to ehtnic-based — politics in this part of the country is almost nowhere to be found. 

Out of the three leading parties — SNSD, SDA, HDZ — only the HDZ escaped being shaken up significantly. It has no major competition within the Bosnian Croat electorate, for various reasons. 

In the past few decades, this party has established a branched interest network and mastered its rule over public enterprises, educational institutions and the church, while it has also produced ethnic homogenization applied in the aforementioned mixed communities, but also generally everywhere.

Constantly fearing political elimination, disenfranchisement, and being reduced to an ethnic minority that is under threat from Bosniak nationalists, Croats — if we are to personify this group for the sake of this sentence — find themselves in a state of spasm and mental blockage that prevents them from rationally considering where they stand. HDZ’s nationalist policies and corrupt practices are largely to blame for this state of affairs. 

The special case of Mostar

Nothing written above applies in any way to the City of Mostar, where no elections were held on November 15. They will take place on December 20 — after 12 years of waiting.

Mostar is also an exception in the sense that it is the only Bosnian city or municipality where elections aren’t held according to the principle of “one person – one vote” in a single constituency. Instead, the City is divided into multiple constituencies, according to the ethnic and territorial principle established in the Dayton Peace Agreement, with a set number of guaranteed seats in the City Council for members of each of the constitutive peoples — Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats. Meanwhile, the mayor isn’t elected directly, but through the City Council. 

This is the result of an HDZ-SDA agreement from June this year, which came about after the Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights ordered the Parliament of Bosnia and Herzegovina to amend the Election Law in order to allow local elections in Mostar.

HDZ and SDA are also the parties responsible for the 12 year hiatus in Mostar — after failing to enforce a Constitutional Court ruling that said the city’s power-sharing structure needed reform, and they are simultaneously the parties that expect the best election results. They have called for national unity and assembling together, whereas those who disrupt this “unity” are often declared to be “traitors.”

Irma Baralija from Naša stranka was among the “traitors.” She is also the person most responsible for the fact that Mostar elections will be held, after she initiated the case in the European Court of Human Rights. 

In the pre-campaign period, nationalist rhetoric, emotional blackmail and forcing people into “national unity” were all prevalent as a product of tensions that always benefits HDZ and SDA.

The local elections in Mostar are always presented as more than mere elections, as a national conquest of the city, a peaceful fulfillment of war goals, a time when the very raison d’être for each party is to prove the ultimate winners: either “Bosniaks” or “Croats,” “us” or “them.” However, alternatives are visible in civil parties and electoral lists that do not define themselves by ethnicity.

The elections will demonstrate how many citizens have turned their back on old stories and what is the actual strength of politicians who haven’t been dominantly marked by nationalism and clientelism. 

Feature image: Courtesy of Dragan Stanimirović.