Bosnia: Fraud Claims Mar Serb Poll

Scandal and ethnic tensions overshadow close fought election campaign in Republika Srpska.

Bosnia: Fraud Claims Mar Serb Poll

Scandal and ethnic tensions overshadow close fought election campaign in Republika Srpska.

Wednesday, 18 September, 2002

Allegations of corruption and ethnic violence have marred the build up to next month's parliamentary elections - the most hotly contested ballot in Republika Srpska, RS, since its inception.

Voters throughout Bosnia go to the polls on October 5 to elect new governments, with the RS election likely to be the most controversial.

The charges of financial mismanagement stemmed from a recent report by independent RS auditor Bosko Ceko, which claimed that the current Banja Luka government wasted 130 million konvertible marks (65 million euro) from the 2001 budget on unnecessary expenditures, such as servicing the debts of several banks to facilitate privatisation.

Ceko's report has received widespread coverage in the local media, but parliament - dominated by the Serbian Democratic Party, SDS, and the Party for Democratic Progress, PDP - has done all in its power to postpone a proper debate on the issue.

"It is not in the interest of SDS and PDP to allow the general public to be informed about all the embezzlement in government just before the elections," said Milorad Dodik, head of the Party of Independent Social Democrats, SNSD, and the main opposition leader.

Dodik was himself accused of misusing funds when he was prime minister in 1999 and 2000. At the time, he insisted the charges were part of an SDS and PDP campaign to discredit him and destroy his election chances.

Recent surveys indicate that the electorate - nowadays more preoccupied with the economy then national issues - are increasingly frustrated by the mud slinging, which has accompanied campaigning for the October parliamentary ballot.

Over 20 per cent of voters say they do not intend to cast a vote this time around. "I didn't even register for these elections - I wouldn't know who to vote for, " said Dunja Kremenovic, an economy student from Banja Luka. "Even my grandfather, who always voted, says he will not vote this time because he trusts nobody any more."

The Ceko report revelations coincided with an outbreak of ethnic violence in RS, which political parties from the Bosnian Federation claimed was orchestrated by Serbian hardliners to boost the popularity of the SDS and the Serb Radical Party, SRS.

Following the victory of the Yugoslav national team in the world basketball championships, dozens of Bosnian Serb fans went on the rampage attacking non-Serbs and their property.

Bosnian Muslim owned shops and houses in Zvornik and Bjeljina were damaged. Two police officers in Kozarac were injured while protecting Muslim families from a crowd of fans from nearby Prijedor.

"I am convinced these incidents were not spontaneous," said Federation prime minister Alija Behmen in a letter to his RS counterpart Mladen Ivanic. Behmen demanded swift action from the Bosnian Serb police and judiciary to find and punish those responsible.

Bosnia's High Representative Paddy Ashdown expressed his concerns at the conduct of the election campaign in an address to the RS parliament on September 13, which was broadcasted on television.

Ashdown called on politicians to act more responsibly and urged voters to go to the ballot box on polling day and vote for economic reforms.

The High Representative stressed that the next four years will determine the long-term future of the country.

"By 2006, either the process of reform will put this country irreversibly on the road to stability, prosperity, and membership of Europe, or it will have ground to a halt, leaving (Bosnia) in a state of decline, overtaken by its neighbours, crippled by debt, shunned by investors, abandoned by the young, undermined by corruption and condemned to a period of seemingly unending international oversight," Ashdown said.

Independent analysts offer several explanations as to why this election campaign has been so viciously contested.

They point out that it will be the first post-war ballot to establish institutions with a full four-year mandate; and that it is also the first one to be held under Bosnian laws and run by the local election commission rather than the OSCE.

Furthermore, the political situation in the entity has become more confused due to the gradual decline in support for the SDS since the 1996 elections. A significant rise in the numbers of returnees over the past two years has also given greater significance to some non-Serb parties based in the Federation but contesting the elections in RS.

Local analysts predict Ivanic and the PDP stand to be the biggest losers in the upcoming poll. Founded in autumn 1999, the party experienced a dizzy rise in popularity in the run up to the November 2000 elections, ending up the second largest party in the assembly.

At the time, Ivanic claimed the PDP would go on to double its support, but all the signs are that the party will be lucky to hold onto its 2000 position.

Ivanic's decision to enter a coalition with the SDS following the last ballot now seems a miscalculation. With the election campaign in full swing, the prime minister is being blamed for the catastrophic economic situation, the slowness of the privatisation process and the plight of refugees and war veterans, not just by the opposition, but by his SDS coalition partners too.

Latest opinion polls, from the United Nations Development Programme, UNDP, and the US National Democratic Institute, NDI, indicate that the SDS will win the elections, but without enough votes to form a government on its own.

The polls also suggest few parties will secure the minimum 3 per cent of the vote required to gain a seat in the parliament.

An NDI poll conducted at the end of August had the SDS on 30 per cent, the SNSD on 20 per cent and the PDP on 12 per cent. The remainder of seats in the 83-strong parliament would be divided among the main moderate Social Democratic Party, SDP, and parties representing Bosniaks and Croats.

Such a close result promises a busy and interesting post-election period, as virtually all coalition options remain open.

Gordana Katana is a correspondent with Voice of America in Banja Luka

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