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Divisions Cemented as Nationalists Hold On to Power in Bosnia-Herzegovina Vote

Two decades after the Dayton Agreement helped end a brutal war, the country is mired in economic troubles and narrow sectarian interests are threatening progress.
October 14, 2014, 6:40pm
Image via Reuters

Bosnia-Herzegovina's main nationalist politicians have held onto power in the weekend's elections, cementing ethnic divisions and threatening progress in a country struggling with a stagnating economy and soaring levels of unemployment.

Voters cast their ballots on Sunday for presidential, national, regional and local representatives in a six-layer system of government, which is said to be among the world's most complicated.

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As expected, Milorad Dodik, a nationalist who espouses secession for Bosnian Serbs, will remain president of the ethnic-Serb Republika Srpska, albeit with a narrow victory margin.

The country's central election commission confirmed the preliminary results on Tuesday, saying the Alliance of Independent Social Democrats politician had received 47.1 percent to the Serbian Democratic Party's Ognjen Tadic's 45.1 percent.

Up to ten per cent of ballots were spoiled on Sunday, according to some estimates, showing the escalating dissatisfaction with Bosnia's well-paid but inefficient politicians. This sentiment boiled over into unprecedented — non-ethnic — riots in Tuzla on February 5, and quickly spread across the Muslim-Croat Federation.

Despite this widespread discontent, the poll is unlikely to bring about real change, as the Balkan country remains hemmed in by the 1995 Dayton Agreement: an externally imposed constitution designed to end a war, but which has entrenched division and sectarian interests.

Srecko Latal, an analyst with Social Overview Service, a research organization in Sarajevo, said the elections had cemented those divisions further, leaving the country "stuck" in its economic and political woes and threatening hopes of progress.

"All three sides for the past 20 years have been unable to reach any compromise, so the country is paralyzed," he told the New York Times. "They can't agree on the past and they can't agree on the present — never mind the future."

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The Dayton Agreement brought an end to a brutal war, but the price of peace has been nearly two decades of stagnation, thanks to that unwieldy power-sharing deal brokered for the Bosniak, Serb and Croat communities.

Ever since the country has been divided into two semi-autonomous halves: the ethnic-Serb Republika Srpska and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The formerly liberal Dodik had run on an election ticket that he would like the Republika to be "less and less an entity and more a state."

The Croats have meanwhile been represented by several of the country's ten federal units, or cantons. This democratic gridlock can also be seen by the 106 laws that parliament has passed in the last four years, down from 180 in the 2006-10 period.

Modern Bosnian politics is based on party "strongmen." While Dodik heads the Alliance of Independent Social Democrats, Bakir Izetbegovic leads the Party of Democratic Action in the Federation and Dragan Covic rules the Croatian Democratic Union, which represents Bosnian Croats. In Bosnia, political platforms are superseded by pipe-dreams of Serb independence, Bosniak dominance or Croatian "third entity" status.

One new glimmer of hope is the split of the ethnic-Serb vote in Republika Srpska. Dodik retained his post of entity president, but will now need to engage in more meaningful policy debate after Mladen Ivanic took the Serb post of the state presidency for the Party of Democratic Progress, which may also take control of the legislature.

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Jasmin Mujanovic, a visiting scholar at New York's Columbia University, said that "with the Serb post of the state presidency and possibly even the RS legislature in "opposition" hands, we may finally begin to see a substantive policy debate in the Serb community in Bosnia-Herzegovina."

Nevertheless the weekend election has returned "mainly the same main players that have been here for ten to fifteen years," Damir Kapidzic, a professor of political science at the University of Sarajevo, told VICE News.

According to Kapidzic, "the most important issue is getting foreign investment and jobs and people have been voting for jobs and welfare. There are two main things that need to happen now: that a government is formed, and that they can formulate an economic agenda," he added.

With jobless statistics estimating an unemployment rate as high as 44 per cent, a repeat of the post-2010 election debacle, when politicians took 16 months to form governments at the state and Federation level, would not be tolerated this time. May's massive floods — which caused damages of an estimated €2 billion ($2.5bn), or 15 per cent of Bosnia's gross domestic product — have further aggravated the economic situation. Consequently "this election was about security of a different kind: security of income and welfare, above EU membership," Kapidzic added.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which monitors elections, noted that the ethnic divide was a key factor in the election. The OSCE rued the country's "lack of a shared vision of the country's future and of co-operation among the three constituent peoples" in its post-election report. The overall picture remains a country unable to move on from its past. As OSCE Special Co-ordinator Roberto Battelli put it: "The lack of political will to move beyond the Dayton agreement prevents the country from moving away from the current inter-ethnic divides and towards real progress for the country".

Follow Daniel Nolan on Twitter: @nolan_dan