Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Bosnia: Pre-election Turmoil

Looking for winners is next to impossible in the tumult of Bosnia's ferocious election campaign.
By Janez Kovac

The most frenzied and virulent election campaign ever seen since Bosnia became independent has left voters dazed and disenchanted with mainstream political parties.

Polls show that undecided voters are about the only growing section of the electorate.

Amid the clamour, many believe the election on October 5 will determine whether Bosnia-Herzegovina manages to catch "the last train" to European accession or remains on the margins of the modern world for years to come.

The good news is that campaigning has so far witnessed almost no violence of the kind seen in earlier elections when ethnic minorities and returning refugees were often attacked just to stir up nationalist tensions.

That apart, politicians have hurled ferocious abuse at each other, dug up real or imagined scandals and engaged in a whole new school of dirty tricks even at the risk of plunging the country into financial ruin. Most of them ignore concrete issues like the economy, better social services, the rule of law and human rights.

Blind to growing public frustration with the

deteriorating economic and social situation, many

local news organisations enthusiastically joined in supporting their political favourites and brutally attacking opponents.

Analysts offered several reasons for the unsurpassed passion of this campaign. One explanation was that Bosnians are now electing a government for four years instead of two as it was in the past.

Also, the elections come at the moment when Western financial and political support is not only shrinking but also becoming highly conditional on successful implementation of economic and social reforms.

In addition, this is the first time since the end of the war that Bosnians themselves have organised an election. The four ballots since 1996 were supervised by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, OSCE.

A total of 57 political parties, nine coalitions and three independent candidates joined the battle for support from some 2.3 million registered voters at state, entity and cantonal levels.

The struggle is especially fierce in the Muslim-Croat Federation. Here the two biggest political groups are the moderate Social Democratic Party, SDP, and the Muslim nationalist Party of Democratic Action, SDA. Third strongest is the Party for Bosnia-Herzegovina, SZBiH.

The dirtiest brawl is between SDP and SZBiH, the two parties which established the Alliance for Changes coalition and controlled a slim majority at federation and state level after the 2000 election.

Partly because of its slim majority the alliance failed to implement fully its pledges on economic, social and legal reform and effectively fell apart over the past few months despite strong international support.

"They were not aware of the depth of the systematic

problems awaiting them," said the United Nations Development Programme representative Henrik Kolstrup in his foreword to the latest UNDP political and economic survey.

Some analysts think disappointment with the alliance might bring voters back to the nationalist parties. They believe hard line nationalist Muslims will vote for the SDA no matter what, and that the SDP and SZBiH are fighting over the rest of the Muslims.

Unlike SZBiH, the SDP is still the only truly

multi-ethnic party in the entire country and can count on some Bosnian Croat and Serb votes.

The battle almost brought on a major financial

crisis after an SZBiH deputy in the federal parliament proposed legislation which would almost double benefits for war veterans and invalids.

The SZBiH party did not expect the legislation to be passed but hoped the influential war veterans and invalids associations would blame the SDP for its rejection.

After harsh warnings from the international community, the legislation was dropped. Had it gone ahead, the International Monetary Fund would have withdrawn pledges of aid and triggered a damaging economic crisis.

In return, the SDP accused SZBiH leader Haris

Silajdzic of misusing funds from the war loans he had taken as wartime foreign minister and later as premier.

As a result of all this, the federal parliament has for months been unable to agree on the appointment of new ministers of finance and social affairs.

In the other Bosnian entity - Republika Srpska, RS - the battle is just as vicious. The nationalist Serb Democratic Party, SDS, is trying to blame the Party of Democratic Progress, PDP, and RS premier Mladen Ivanic who leads it for the dire economic and social situation.

For its part, the PDP party is showing an increasingly nationalist face. The main RS opposition leader Milorad Dodik and his Party of Independent Social Democrats, SNSD, hammer away at the SDS and PDP with charges of corruption.

Foreign and local analysts say the chaos is damaging all parties, a view reflected in the latest survey conducted by the US National Democratic Institute, NDI.

Compared with a previous poll in February, the survey in May showed that numbers intending to vote had dropped from 90 to 82 per cent. The popularity of almost all parties was seen to be in decline.

Although a quick follow-up poll conducted by NDI in August showed further decline of SDP and SDA popularity, the general picture is similar to 2000 election results with the SDP, HDZ and SDS the three strongest parties in the country.

Surveys show that SDP remains the most popular party amongst Muslims while Bosnian Croat and Serb voters will again overwhelmingly vote for HDZ and SDS respectively. However, the SDP's popularity is growing among Bosnian Serbs and Croats, and it is the only party that will register substantial results across all three ethnic groups.

While the NDI August poll shows that extremely negative and brutal campaigns run by the main political parties start benefiting smaller parties, it is still questionable how many of them will achieve required 3 per cent participation threshold.

NDI and UNDP surveys indicate that the 2002 ballot will wipe out most of the small parties and that only about a dozen of the bigger ones will participate in power sharing.

On the positive side, polls show that the issues that mainly concern most voters are employment, the fight against corruption and the improvement of social and health services - matters politicians have done little to address.

Interest in nationalist issues appear to have dwindled to only 14 per cent of voters in the Federation and 15 per cent in the RS.

One curious trend is the constantly growing popularity of the Bosnian Party, BOSS and its bizarre leader Mirnes Ajanovic. BOSS has little party infrastructure, no firm policies and confines itself mostly to attacking al other politicians, nationalists and moderates alike.

Voters seem to like Ajanovic's legendary tirades and according to the UNDP and NDI his party could receive between seven and 10 per cent of votes in some contests.

Many analysts say that the "Through Work to Prosperity" party established two years ago by Bosnian Croat businesman Mladen Ivankovic-Lijanovic could also gain additional votes with one of the strongest most original and positive campaigns.

These parties prove that many Bosnians are tired with the old political mindset and undemocratic ways and are looking for something truly new and different.

One way or the other, nobody dares to bet on the outcome of the forthcoming poll, especially since all polls show more then 20 per cent of the electorate are undecided.

Janez Kovac is a pseudonym for a Sarajevo-based journalist.

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