On October 7, people in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) took to the polls in the country’s eighth post-war general election. Described as the most contentious and divisive election since the war in the 1990s, the vote was preceded by a bruising campaign marred by accusations of fraud, hate speech, corruption and violence.
Even though underhand tactics have been a permanent feature of Bosnian electioneering, the exceptionally dramatic rhetoric and lack of clear vision to address the numerous challenges facing Bosnian society left many voters perplexed about the country’s future.
In a reflection of the complexity of the Bosnian government structure, the approximately 3.3 million eligible voters could choose between almost 7,500 candidates that ran for 518 offices; 53 parties, 36 coalitions as well as a number of independent candidates.
All public offices were up for grabs: the tripartite state Presidency, the state Parliament and the assemblies in the two entities (the Croat-Bosniak Federation and the Serb-dominated Republika Srpska), the Brčko District, and the Presidency of Republika Srpska.
The three-member state presidency seats were won by Milorad Dodik, a Bosnian Serb nationalist and leader of the Alliance of Independent Social Democrats (SNSD), Šefik Džaferović, the candidate for the Party of Democratic Action (SDA), the dominant Bosniak party, and Željko Komšić, a candidate of the multiethnic Democratic Front who won the seat reserved for the Croat member of the Presidency. Komšić was a member of the Presidency from 2006 to 2014, making this his third mandate in the office.
According to the preliminary results, the SDA and the SNSD lead the race for Bosnia’s Parliamentary Assembly. In the Federation, the SDA has come out on top followed by the Croat Democratic Party (HDZ BiH). In Republika Srpska, the SNSD has won the most votes.
BiH’s complex political structure, often blamed for hampering the country’s economic progress, is compounded by deep societal fractures that run along ethnic lines – a reminder of war-era nationalist rivalries.
Just like during previous campaigns, this year’s vote saw these divisions exploited by politicians from the three main ethnic groups, all bent on stoking fear of renewed hostilities, cultivating a sense of victimhood and pandering to nationalist sentiments to divert attention from their inability to deliver on the most basic promises.
“You can do better!?”
According to Pod Lupom, an election monitoring organization, there have been “hundreds of cases of electoral irregularities, such as illegitimate pressure on voters, vote buying, threats of being fired from the workplace or offers of new employment in exchange for a vote, misuse of public resources for the purpose of the campaign.”
The organisation noted that the “deepening of inter-ethnic and intra-ethnic divisions, the instilling fear of the other and the different remains the main characteristic of the election campaigns and programs in BiH.”
In a notable development, Transparency International Bosnia filed criminal charges against Milorad Dodik, the president of Republika Srpska, for threatening attendees at his campaign meetings with dismissal if they voted for his opponents.
A billboard depicting Ratko Mladić, the war time Army of Republika Srpska commander sentenced to life imprisonment by the Hague Tribunal, was installed in Vlasenica in Republika Srpska, prompting the chief of the OSCE Mission to BiH, Bruce Berton, to Tweet: “Glorifying war criminals? Promoting revenge instead of justice? How will this help the economy, healthcare or education? Come on candidates, you can do better! Let’s talk about real issues!”
However, concrete, meaningful and achievable solutions to the numerous challenges the country faces have been hard to come by. Even a cursory look at the main parties’ manifestos reveal a lack of a solid plan to tackle basic issues that affect the whole of the population, such as mass unemployment, alarming air quality, environmental devastation and a collapsing health system.
According to Trading Economics, in July this year, the unemployment rate in BiH stood at over 35 percent, while figures from the World Bank placed youth unemployment in the country at just under 55 percent last year, a 20 percent increase since 1991. According to the Union for Sustainable Return NGO, since 2013, around 170,000 Bosnians have left the country, nearly five percent of its population of 3.5 million.
The SDA, the most voted for Bosniak party, had promised “significantly higher wages, pensions and living standards, 850,000 jobs by the end of 2022 and 1 million jobs by 2026,” as well as halting the “depopulation trend” and “eliminating the employment grey zone.” The 36-page manifesto, however, lacks any concrete calculations that would underpin the ambitious promises.
The election manifesto of HDZ BiH leaves even more to the imagination. A short paragraph on “economic growth and development,” does not answer rudimentary questions about the party’s intended course of action.
On the environment, the parties are just as cryptic. For instance, the SDA claims that the party will “strive for an economic life based on the paradigm of sustainable development and a developmental and environmental vision of economic growth and ecological balance, as long standing and prosperous European economic and political orientations.”
Given that Bosnia has for years been teetering on the brink of an environmental crisis, with some of the world’s highest levels of air pollution, uncontrolled fly tipping in over 10,000 unofficial rubbish dumps, as well as widespread destruction of previously pristine rivers due to the excessive construction of hydroelectric power plants, such a pledge hardly addresses the scale of the challenges ahead.
However, even vague promises have not been delivered on, historically. According to analysis by Zašto ne, a Sarajevo-based NGO that monitors government accountability, between 2014-2018 only 3.3 percent of the 2014 election promises were fulfilled by institutions at state and entity level (4 percent in Republika Srpska, and 3 percent in the Federation), or 32 pledges out of 966.
The lack of accountability has led to widespread distrust of the establishment as well as the political process as a whole. According to a study by the Bosnian Association of Journalists carried out in May 2018, only 15 percent of the population trusts politicians, and just 19.4 percent has trust in political parties.
Feature image: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.