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

Can the SDP Deliver?

The opposition SDP looks on course to end nationalist hegemony in Bosnia, but will they deliver change?
By Amra Kebo

This weekend's general election promises an end to the post-war monopoly enjoyed by Bosnia's nationalist parties.


Opinion polls indicate the opposition multi-ethnic Social Democratic Party, SDP, of Zlatko Lagumdzija may win a majority in Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) areas and a significant minority in Bosnian Croat and Serb districts.


Lagumdzija, although unlikely to win an outright majority in the Bosnian Federation parliament, should do well enough to form an administration with the support of smaller opposition parties.


While the nationalist Croatian Democratic Union, HDZ, and Serb Democratic Party, SDS, look set to do well once again in their strongholds, the SDP should still muster enough votes to play a pivotal role in these areas.


But many observers are now asking whether the SDP and Lagumdzija are up to the job.


In the April local elections, the SDP captured more than 200,000 votes, becoming the largest in Bosnia. Under the new SDP administrations, many municipalities saw rapid improvements.


But some of Lagumdzija's recent actions have raised eyebrows among the international community. A series of controversial appointments made by the SDP leader provoked open conflict with party founder Nijaz Durakovic.


One western official who wished to remain anonymous said the dispute exposed Lagumdzija's penchant for absolutism. The official expressed concern the SDP leader was seeking to establish a one-man party, warning such behaviour would not be tolerated.


During the last sessions of the federal parliament, the SDP displayed a degree of political immaturity over its handling of amendments to Bosnia's pension laws. The international administration insists the changes are introduced before it hands over $200 million in aid over the next two years.


But pensioners have raised concerns the reforms could reduce their already miserly stipends. And fearing the amendments could dent support among elderly voters, the SDP voted against their introduction, even though it had previously backed them.


The SDA and HDZ, meanwhile, voted in favour, although this was not enough to see the new laws through. Should international donors now refuse to hand over the aid, the SDP may have to carry the can.


The nationalist parties' decline in popularity is easy to explain. Irresponsible and short-sighted government has resulted in industrial production plummeting to 33 per cent of pre-war levels. The slow rate of privatisation has hindered investment, a pre-requisite to creating new jobs.


In the six years since the war ended, less than 3 per cent of state companies have been privatised. Over 40 per cent of adults are unemployed. Average salaries are not enough to cover basic costs. Strikes are increasingly common, with workers demanding more and more punctual payment.


Corruption is the single biggest issue. The international administration reckons the government loses around 500 million German marks a year through cigarette smuggling alone. Around 40 per cent of goods sold on the market are not taxed. An estimated 100,000 people work illegally.


Nationalist party officials are frequently implicated in press exposes of corruption and criminal activity.


Hence the non-nationalist SDP seems like a breath of fresh air. Lagumdzija is certainly a favourite with the international community, welcomed in the same way as the new Croatian government and Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica.


Aside from the nationalist parties, few people in Bosnia are prepared to criticise Lagumdzija. Discrediting and defeating the nationalist parties is the priority.


Nepotism and party loyalty have been the pre-requisites for government office under the nationalists. Personal and party interests took precedence over the concerns of ordinary people, and even national or state interests.


Lagumdzija and the SDP need to change this approach if they are to fulfil the high expectations of Bosnians and internationals alike.


The international community too needs to temper its unreserved support for the SDP. Bosnia does not need another Milorad Dodik, prime minister of Republika Srpska - who has enjoyed huge support from the international community, but delivered very little in return.


Besides failing to fulfil his manifesto commitments, media reports frequently accuse Dodik of involvement in corrupt and criminal activity.


An SDP victory could see Bosnia taking its first real steps towards democracy and liberalisation. But the party faces a huge task. Lagumdzija needs somehow to turn around the disastrous economy, while holding onto political authority. He must also offer help to other opposition parties to boost the cause of democracy across the country.


Amra Kebo is a regular IWPR contributor.