Perspectives | BiH

Is there any chance of meaningful change in Bosnian elections?

By - 29.10.2020

More than 30,000 candidates stand in November’s local elections.

Bosnia and Herzegovina (B&H) cannot pride itself on luminous traditions of its citizens expressing their free will and freedom during elections. After the first democratic elections in 1990, the war broke out; in the period afterward, elections were conducted under the auspices of the international community.

Back then, in his famous work “The Rise of Illiberal Democracy,” journalist and author Fareed Zakaria wrote about the dilemmas faced by the former U.S. special representative for the Balkans and architect of the B&H Peace Agreement Richard Holbrooke, about the meaning of holding elections if retrograde forces are winning.

A lot of time has passed since then, while the state and its institutions have meanwhile taken control of the election processes, implementation and bodies, but the dilemmas concerning the meaning of elections still remain.

The breezy pre-election period

B&H elections are held in the appropriate timeframes, with local and general elections taking place interchangeably every two years. The only fluctuation this year is that, due to issues pertaining to the harmonization of the state budget, local elections have been postponed for a month or so, and will be held on November 15.

In practice, this means that the country is in a state of permanent campaigning. Yet, during election years, the hyped conditions take on an air of carnivals or fairs. Promises of a bright future, tens of thousands of jobs, exponential growth and development are found in abundance.

More than 30,000 candidates have decided to try their luck by running in the local elections.

In such a charming and breezy state of affairs, there are certainly no exact indicators, programs or concrete proposals for public policies. Where there are ingrates — because their kind is always easy to find — it’s important to threaten them firmly if they dare not vote for those who are offering them a spectacular future.

The carnivalesque and fair-like atmosphere still requires additional financial means. For example, in the 2018 election year, the amount of funds for procurement for public construction and services increased more than 40% in comparison to the previous, non-election year.

The 2020 election year is no exception to this. 

More than 30,000 candidates have decided to try their luck by running in the local elections. There is a wide range of choices to be made, from overly experienced wolves who have been steering their local communities through the tempestuous waters of political transition, to fresh forces with various backgrounds — singers, masseurs, influencers, retirees, bakers, doctors, and almost all other professions.

The candidates’ impatience for the (pre-)election games to begin was visible in the fact that many of them had set their campaigns in motion even before the official start.

According to the Election Law, the campaign should last for a single month prior to the elections. However, before the official election campaign started, observers from Transparency International B&H recorded 78 large-scale election rallies, as well as 1,431 examples of public resources being spent on election promotion of parties and candidates, and obtaining support from voters.

As many as 547 cases of intensified public construction projects took place in the pre-election period, signifying an abuse of political office, as well as 150 examples of distributing special incentives and subsidies, usually relating to one-time payments timed to coincide with the pre-election period.

One of many examples is embodied in the head of the Municipality of Ugljevik distributing 100 B&H convertible marks (51 euros) to children of demobilized wartime fighters, whereas the mayor of Zenica paid 100,000 convertible marks (51,000 euros) to the Association of Retirees, claiming that it had nothing to do with the elections and that the Association will allocate funds for financially disadvantaged retirees.

Two months prior to the start of the official election campaign, 62 cases of free medical checkups, medicines, travel and discounts on public services were recorded. Bijeljina’s mayor and the municipal head of Novo Sarajevo organized free picnics for some sections of the population, while the administration in Trebinje used its Agrarian Fund to establish a special store for retirees, providing them with up to 50% discounts.

Organized fraud attempts

Of course, more creativity in the election process and around it was yet to come. 

This year, it emerged that there had been a dramatic rise in the number of citizens registering to vote from abroad, via mail. The diaspora received numerous commendations for registering to vote, but this praise was soon replaced by suspicion of an organized attempt to steal the identities of tens of thousands of people, as it was suspected that many people had been registered from abroad unknowingly. The registrations had been from the surrounding countries but also from across Europe. 

Reacting to this situation, the Central Election Committee (CIK) rejected the registration of almost 30,000 potential voters, as revealed when CIK published the voter list for the very first time. The publishing of the list was itself prompted by negative experiences from the last elections in 2018, when the media reported how, according to their information, more than 8,000 deceased people voted in the election.

This, still, isn’t the end of the story.

Next, the Agency for Personal Data Protection entered the spotlight, passing a decision to order CIK to remove the published excerpt of the Central Voter Registry relating to diaspora voting from public view.

One of the major mysteries of this year’s election process is this: What did the Agency for Personal Data Protection base its decision on, when the Election Law clearly and explicitly states that the Central Voter Registry and its excerpts constitute public documents?

Here, too, the story of election machinations is definitely not over.

No less explicit is the fundamental law upon which the Agency is based; namely, the Law on Personal Data Protection in B&H, which states that its goal is to, among other things, “ensure the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms.” Beside the protection of data and privacy, this includes the right to vote, which has been seriously infringed upon due to the misuse of citizens’ data in the course of fictitious voter registrations from abroad.

The law further states that ― if public interest is at stake, which is almost mathematically provable in this case ― information must be publicly communicated, regardless of whether it contains personal information.

Here, too, the story of election machinations is definitely not over.

Following the 2018 general elections, the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights observation mission noted that there were credible suspicions of widespread electoral malpractice; pivotal positions on polling station commissions were regularly traded by political parties so that they could ensure full control over commissions particularly relevant to them — or rather, in places where they deemed there was a need for election engineering.

There are certainly doubts of this kind in relation to the upcoming elections. 

For instance, it’s difficult to accept that only the selfless desire of contributing to the development of local communities and striving for fair elections was involved in the “Čapljina Independent Party – Čapljina in our hearts” preconditioning their registration for elections with obtaining seats on polling station commissions in Srebrenik, Ilijaš, Novi Grad and Stari Grad (Sarajevo), Kalesija, Živinice, Tuzla, and Doboj. We will probably never know whether the visionaries of Čapljina will use their polling station commissions’ seats as a means of trade or an attempt to extend their Čapljina vision to the rest of B&H.

Now, as the November 15 election day approaches, Bosnian citizens  still find themselves faced with the same dilemma as Holbrooke did in  — an Orwellian catch 22, that, “until they become conscious they will never rebel, and until after they have rebelled they cannot become conscious.” In other words, there is only any point in elections if they are fair.

Feature image courtesy of Central Election Commission BiH.