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

Bosnian Moderates Split

Re-election of controversial SDP party president prompts many senior figures to form a new faction.
By Janez Kovac

Bosnia's Social Democratic Party, SDP, has effectively split in two after a disastrous showing in October's elections and an acrimonious congress last weekend.

This development will significantly influence current efforts to establish new governments on cantonal, entity and state levels, and may also have a long-term impact on the political scene.

The marathon day and a half-long SDP congress exposed the ugly face of Bosnian local politics, with debate dominated by yelling, personal assaults and accusations. Very little attention was paid to a serious analysis of the reasons for the party's poor performance in the October 5 general election.

As soon as it became obvious that current party president Zlatko Lagumdzija would be re-elected in spite of the poll drubbing and growing criticism of his leadership, a number of the SDP's most senior leaders left the session and later announced formation of a new social-democratic political movement.

This group includes several of the strongest SDP figures in the past few years: speaker of the Federation's House of Peoples Sejfudin Tokic; deputy speaker of the House of Representatives Sead Avdic; speaker of the Federal House of Peoples and member of the wartime presidency Ivo Komsic, and wartime speaker of the Bosnian parliament, Miro Lazovic.

The key question, which will be answered in following days and weeks, is how many other senior, regional and local SDP members, deputies and local party branches will follow suit.

"We were not defeated by any opponent. We defeated ourselves," said one of many local delegates who spoke during the congress.

This may be the best summary of the SDP's agony, which has drawn a lot of public attention across the country in the past few months.

The party was formed in 1990 by Sarajevo social sciences professor Nijaz Durakovic, who transformed the old Union of Communists group into the Social Democratic Party of Bosnia-Hercegovina.

Seven years later, Lagumdzija, a young and popular professor of information technology, who served as the country's wartime deputy premier, replaced him as party president.

In 1999, the SDP merged with the Union of Social Democrats, UBSD, led by popular Tuzla mayor Selim Beslagic.

Bolstered by the merger, the SDP enjoyed growing popularity among Bosnian Muslims (Bosniaks), as well as many Bosnian Serbs and Croats who were tired and disappointed with nationalist party rule.

Openly or tacitly supported by the international community, the SDP registered a slim but significant victory in the 2000 general elections. Although Bosniak-dominated, the party became the only one to boast significant representations of all ethnic groups.

The party came to power at state as well as Federation level through the 11-party Coalition for Change, which led many western and local analysts to believe and hope that nationalist rule in the country had effectively ended.

Since 2000, the SDP has initiated numerous key economic and social reforms, which were previously blocked by the hard line politicians. However, it stopped short of bringing about real change in society.

This failure is partly due to the nature of the coalition, which comprised so many parties that decision-making was a serious problem. In addition, many of the alliance's members often followed their own private or political interests and effectively acted as the opposition - slowing down or even completely blocking its activity.

As the 2002 elections drew nearer, these relations deteriorated even further and the coalition effectively fell apart months ago.

Faced with rising economic and social problems in the country, growing criticism, as well as personal and public attacks - which were often carried out through biased newspapers - the SDP and Lagumdzija began to buckle.

Instead of moving to close ranks, party leaders started fighting each other in public. At the same time, Lagumdzija - who was already being criticised for his egocentric and centralistic rule over the party - tried to tighten his grip even further.

As a result, he clashed with Durakovic, who then caused a political stir by appearing as a candidate for the rival Party for Bosnia-Hercegovina, SZBiH, on the eve of the 2002 ballot.

Preoccupied by ruthless infighting, the party paid little attention to its pre-election campaign. Relying on empty rhetoric and cheap publicity focused only on Lagumdzija and few other main representatives, the SDP failed to communicate its accomplishments to the electorate.

The result was a humiliating defeat on October 5 - the biggest in the country's recent political history. Two years previously, the SDP polled more than 235,000 votes. This year, it managed around 108,000.

The result gave the impression that nationalism had made something of a comeback, but this was only because of the high number of abstentions.

In fact, only the Bosniak Party of Democratic Action, SDA, gained a few hundred more votes than in previous elections. The other two main nationalist parties - the Serb Democratic Party, SDS, and Croat Democratic Union, HDZ - lost some 70,000 and 50,000 votes respectively.

Instead of acting as a wakeup call, the election defeat marked the beginning of an all-out war within the SDP. Durakovic was kicked out for his "betrayal", while a number of the most prominent leaders were accused of nationalism or corruption.

While several key leaders resigned from their positions in the SDP main board and presidency, Lagumdzija refused to step down - triggering a new round of vulgar public accusations and counter-accusations.

This situation peaked at the party's extraordinary congress, held on November 23-24, where Lagumdzija went as far as to blame his opponents and even the international community for the election defeat.

"It seems that he [Lagumdzija] put in more effort into his own re-election campaign than he did for the party's general election bid," wrote Almir Sarenkapa in his editorial for daily Nezavisne Novine.

Some analysts are already saying that the biggest loser in the whole sorry episode was actually Bosnia's social-democratic, moderate and non-nationalist political option.

"The SDP has returned to rigid communism," commented one of the dissidents, Ivo Komsic, in a statement to daily Dnevni Avaz.

Sulejman Tihic, president of the SDA, gloated over the fate of the SDP. In a statement for daily Jutarnje Novine, Tihic said that the weekend's congress had proved the SDP to be a party from "the old" communist times. "Such a party does not allow different opinions - it allows only one," he said.

Janez Kovac is the pseudonym for a Sarajevo-based journalist