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Bosnian Serbs Punish SDS at the Polls

Voters disillusioned with nationalist hardliners give them a wake up call.
By Gordana Katana

The dominant Serbian Democratic Party’s poor economic performance and perceived inability to protect the national interest appear to have prompted voters to swing behind the moderate Alliance of Independent Social Democrats in local elections earlier this month.

The Republika Srpska, RS, ballot saw the SDS - the dominant political force in the RS for the past 14 years - lose in several key towns, including the capital, Banja Luka, where the SNSD won the race for the post of mayor.

An even bigger surprise was the SNSD victory in Trebinje, hitherto see as a stronghold of Serbian arch-nationalists.

Judging by an IWPR straw poll, voters shifted to the SNSD because they had lost trust in the SDS, rather than because they positively believed the opposition's promise of change.

Srdjan Puhalo, director of Partner polling agency, described the results of the elections as "a kind of punishment of the SDS".

Preliminary results across the RS show the SNSD won 118,000 votes, compared to 115,000 for the SDS.

A comparison with the parliamentary results of two years ago is even more startling. It shows the SDS has lost 45,000 votes since then, while the SNSD gained just over 7,000.

"As the party in power, citizens see the SDS as directly responsible for the extremely tough economic situation in the Republika Srpska," Puhalo told IWPR.

Velimir Dukic, a craftsman, told IWPR his whole family voted for Milorad Dodik's SNSD. "Life is better in municipalities where the Social Democrats are in power," he said. "You can see how the SDS rules by how life is in the RS."

SNSD loyalist Stojan Maric, a farmer from Laktasi, near Banja Luka, said the party, which had ruled his town since the end of the war, had done a good job.

“When friends from Bratunac [in eastern RS] visited in August, they were surprised to see how well off we are," Maric told IWPR.

"We aren't rich but the authorities aren't grabbing from us, either," he added. "They take care of the people as well as they can, and that is the difference with the SDS.”

The SDS's decision to campaign with traditional nationalist rhetoric, instead of offering fresh solutions to pressing economic problems, clearly did not convince all the voters this time.

In a study published just before the elections, the International Institute for Middle East and Balkan Studies IFIMES, predicted an SDS election downturn, blaming their continuing desire to play the nationalist card.

"This kind of approach has characterised the period since 1990 and has led Bosnia and Herzegovina to isolation from the developed neighbouring European regions and states," the IFIMES study said. "However, it can be noticed that the citizens are sated with this political approach.”

Zivana Olujic, a student from Banja Luka and a first-time voter, said youngsters like her yearned for a change. "It's important to vote for parties that have nothing to do with the war and war criminals," she said. "We young people are in a hurry to enter Europe and that can't be done with the old politicians."

Although the SNSD election result is encouraging, suggesting a new dynamic is at work on the political scene, some analysts warn it may not represent a radical break with hard-line nationalism.

"The Serb stomach has finally won over the Serb heart," Puhalo commented. "That is why for the first time in 14 years [even] the normally nationally rigid east voted for the SNSD.”

Puhalo said it was higher living standards in SNSD-run towns in the west that had “motivated part of the electorate to trust the SNSD, in the belief that this party will bring them economic progress".

Puhalo cautioned that attitudes on the "national" question had not shifted much, however, saying the fall in support for the SDS should not be interpreted as a swing to social democrat ideas, as such.

Tanja Topic, a political analyst with the Friedrich Ebert foundation, agreed. “RS citizens are dissatisfied with the economic situation and naturally blame the ruling parties, starting with the SDS," she said.

Branko Todorovic, chair of the RS Helsinki Human Rights Committee, said he was also not convinced the election result marked an important step towards true democratisation.

"Dodik did not win the election with talk of social democracy," Todorovic remarked. "In the Republika Srpska, where nationalism along with fear and intolerance towards others are the dominant feelings, part of the people simply felt the SDS was no longer able to adequately protect Serbian national interests."

Todorovic linked people's loss of confidence in the SDS to the June decision by the High Representative, Paddy Ashdown, to exclude from politics 57 top SDS officials, citing their alleged role in blocking cooperation with the Hague tribunal.

Todorovic said that the sackings had reminded many citizens that the SDS was under constant pressure from the international community because of its war-time past.

"People felt that Dodik, who came out of the war without a blemish ... is more capable of representing their national interests," Todorovic concluded.

According to Puhalo, the elections did not mark a sea-change in the negative attitudes of most Bosnian Serbs towards Bosnia and Herzegovina as a common state.

"The Serbs punished the SDS but have not changed their fundamental beliefs," Puhalo insisted. "They still dream that the RS will be annexed to Serbia."

Gordana Katana is a Banja Luka-based correspondent for the Voice Of America.

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