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

Bosnians Urged to Vote for Change

Bosnia's ruling nationalist parties are likely to maintain their grip on power in forthcoming local elections.
By Janez Kovac

The international agency supervising Bosnia's elections, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), is urging Bosnians to vote for change in April's municipal polls.


But analysts say the kind of profound political change Bosnia requires could only come after the electoral system has been reformed.


"Our message to the citizens of Bosnia today is simple," OSCE Bosnian mission head Robert Barry told a press conference to mark the official start of the election campaign. "If voters want change, they need to make their voices heard by voting. Come out and vote for your future, and for the future of your children."


Bosnia's ruling parties protested that the OSCE's intervention clearly favoured the opposition. The ruling Bosnian Croat HDZ even said it might call for Barry to resign.


The OSCE denied this was its intention, but it cannot hide the fact that it would prefer moderate parties, supportive of the Bosnian peace process, to triumph at the polls so that the international community can concentrate on conflict resolution elsewhere in the region.


International resources have already been diverted away from Bosnia towards the southern Balkans and, in particular, Kosovo. Moreover, some Western diplomats warn that in the absence of advances in the Bosnian peace process this year, the country may find itself marginalised and starved of further assistance.


Many analysts feel the elections are unlikely to deliver political change because of the peace agreement and the constitution it bequeathed Bosnia. Although the Dayton Accord succeeded in bringing an end to the Bosnian war in 1995, its rigid and complicated ethnic formula is seen as posing an obstacle to progress.


Restrictive constitutional provisions have thwarted attempts to devise a more appropriate electoral system, which could help speed up reforms and make politicians more accountable.


As a result, the electoral law which the OSCE has put to the Bosnian parliament, appears unlikely to break the cycle of ethnically-based voting and contains elements which opposition politicians believe contradict European Conventions on Human Rights.


Other flaws in the Dayton Accord are becoming increasingly evident as well. Five different tiers of government -- at municipal, cantonal, entity and state levels -- have created a massive bureaucracy, which even a wealthy country could not afford. Meanwhile, the ruling nationalist parties continue to spend about three quarters of their budgets on three rival ethnic armies.


Ironically, the document which was once celebrated for ending the killing is now viewed as the principal mechanism by which the same nationalist parties, which led the country into war, can hang on to power. From being its biggest opponents these parties are now its greatest proponents. Meanwhile, opposition politicians, civil society activists and western analysts have become its most vocal critics.


Those critical of the Dayton Accord fear local elections, as well as the general election ballot scheduled for October, will fail to bring about change, and will instead cement the status quo for another four years. With that in mind, several local politicians and watchdog organisations have suggested postponing both ballots for at least a year.


The OSCE, however, insists that local elections must take place as scheduled in April, in part because most of the preparations have already been completed. Delay at this stage would mean that money allocated for the vote would have been wasted and make it difficult to raise future funding.


Some analysts believe that the ruling nationalists are already on their way out as a result of internal feuds and corruption, and hope that elections in a year's time would generate genuine political change. Others say even a one-year delay would not be enough, and are lobbying for the reform of both the election law and the Dayton Accord.


In recent weeks, several politicians and an independent association of Bosnian Croat intellectuals called for the elimination of the two entities and the cantonisation of the whole of Bosnia. A month ago, three leading independent journalists -- one Serb, one Croat and one Muslim -- wrote a joint article urging the international community to abolish Bosnia's local authorities and impose a proper protectorate for a year.


However, faced with declining budgets, international organisations have little choice but to reject such calls and insist on better implementation of the existing peace agreement.


"There is a constant debate about changing Dayton," said James Fergusson, a spokesman for Bosnia's High Representative, Wolfgang Petritsch, the country's main international mediator. "But first we need to implement Dayton. We need more Dayton before we can start talking about revising it ... You have to perfect something before you can change it."


Some diplomats believe that the international community has effectively introduced a protectorate during the past six months, as the new High Representative and other international agencies have taken on Bosnia's nationalist structures.


In December, the High Representative sacked 22 Bosnian Serb, Croat and Muslim leaders in one move for obstructing the peace process. Moreover, just last week, the OSCE and Office of the High Representative amended the election rules to prevent elected politicians from participating in privatisation agencies or serving on boards of state-owned companies.


Many diplomats are now pushing for a yet more interventionist approach, but fear that reduced international spending may undermine future efforts.


"We are on the verge of making some serious changes here," said a senior western diplomat. "It would be shame if we miss this opportunity because of a lack of money and then end up paying more in the longer term."


Janez Kovac is a regular IWPR contributor from Sarajevo.