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

Comment: The Ashdown Factor

The emergent ideological stripes of post election coalitions will matter less than it has in the past.
By Michael Doyle

International media have widely interpreted the partial success of Bosnia's three largest nationalist parties in the country's fourth general election on October 5 as the death knell for the fragile multi-national state created by the Dayton Peace Accords in 1995.


But such a bleak assessment is rather premature. The latest poll result is more a sign of frustration with mainstream politics, than a mandate for national division. The two parties which have historically pursued separatist agendas, the Croat Democratic Union, HDZ, and Serb Democratic Party, SDS, both experienced a drop in total voter support since the last elections, the second dramatically so.


Most telling was the significant drop in overall voter turnout, from 65 per cent in November 2000 to 55 per cent in October 2002.


As Bosnia's international High Representative, Paddy Ashdown, explained at the UN Security Council shortly after the count was completed, "What we witnessed was a protest vote – or, given the low turnout, a protest non-vote - against politics and politicians in general, and against the slow pace of reform."


The real electoral winner was the Bosniak Party of Democratic Action, SDA, which drew voters who’d backed the multi-ethnic Social Democratic Party, SDP, in the 2000 elections. It was Bosniak support for the SDP two years ago that made the moderate "Alliance for Change" government possible at state and Federation level, despite the electoral success of the HDZ and SDS.


Bosniak voters penalised the SDP this time around for a number of reasons, ranging from the perceived arrogance of its front-man Zlatko Lagumdzija; its seeming indifference to the concerns of war veterans; to disappointment at the slow pace of economic reform.


In any case, the full significance of the result will only become clear after governing coalitions are agreed upon for the state Council of Ministers and entity and cantonal governments, a process likely to drag on for weeks or even months. Single parties or pre-election coalitions secured outright majorities in only two cantons.


Furthermore, the ideological stripes of emergent coalitions will matter less than it has in the past. This is because Ashdown has chosen to use his extraordinary powers, which include the right to remove elected officials and impose new legislation, in a new way.


Rather than overtly favouring moderates over nationalists, he has intervened directly to try to make the country run more effectively.


One of Ashdown's first moves after taking office was to demand the resignation of the finance ministers in the Federation and Republika Srpska, RS, because of corruption scandals within the customs administrations under their control.


By some estimates, Bosnia's entity budgets lose some 400 million euro annually to customs evasion. When the Federation finance minister, Nikola Grabovac, refused to resign, Ashdown removed him, citing his failure to "take effective action to ensure the proper guardianship of the public funds and to protect the reputation of his office and the government".


In addition, as the pre-election campaign deteriorated into a morass of corruption scandals and vague promises, the High Representative presented Bosnian citizens and politicians with his own platform of policies necessary to make government more effective and responsible, to establish the rule of law and to improve the economic climate for potential investors.


Seemingly anticipating a disappointing election result, Ashdown secured public support from all of the parties for this platform, under the slogan "Jobs and Justice".


In all, Ashdown has issued 40 decrees since the elections, mostly imposing laws to reform the judiciary and economic sector, which the state, entity and canton parliaments, have failed to pass.


Significantly, he has narrowed the criminal and civil immunity of elected officials to relate only to “acts carried out within the scope of their duties” and announced his intention to vet candidates for several state and entity ministerial positions.


All of these measures have sent a clear signal to future governments that reform will proceed with or without them.


Five weeks after the elections, the final political constellations remain uncertain. In the Federation, a deal between the SDA, HDZ and Party for BiH, a moderate splinter party of the SDA, which appeals primarily to Bosniaks, seems imminent. Together these parties would enjoy nearly two-thirds support in the Federation House of Representatives.


In Republika Srpska, however, a nationalist government which would include the SDS is less assured. While this party won the most seats in the 83-member RS national assembly, its meagre 31 per cent share of the vote opens the possibility of a coalition of seven or more moderate Serb and Federation-based parties led by Milorad Dodik. His Alliance of Independent Social Democrats emerged as the second strongest party in the entity with 22 per cent of seats.


In the state Council of Ministers, a deal to exclude the SDS, HDZ and SDA seems close to impossible, as these parties lack just two votes to form a majority in the state House of Representatives.


US ambassador, Clifford Bond - relying on international coalition building tactics used by his predecessor, Thomas Miller - sought to bring together a group of seven moderate parties from both entities last Monday in Banja Luka to discuss the possibility of forming a state government.


Conceivably, parliamentary support for such a coalition could be bought from the nationalists, in exchange for assured power in the entities and cantons.


Whatever political constellations emerge in the coming weeks and months, they will have four-year mandates to set Bosnia on the road to economic prosperity and European integration. Lord Ashdown has set the standard and the programme. Bosnians are hoping they are up to the task.


Michael Doyle is senior political analyst for the International Crisis Group in Bosnia.