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Election Splits Bosnian Politics

Progressive political parties fail to live up to expectations in Bosnia's third post-war general election
By Janez Kovac

Bosnian politics will be almost equally split between moderate and nationalist parties over the next two years, according to the first preliminary results of last week's general election.


Progressive parties continued to close the gap on their nationalist counterparts - following the trend of previous post-war ballots - but did not do as well as many expected.


With none of the parties possessing clear majorities, the formation of administrations at entity and state level could prove problematic.


"We will be looking at coalition governments," said Luke Zahner, a spokesman for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, OSCE, in charge of organising Bosnian elections since the end of the war.


Preliminary results, based upon some 90 per cent of ballots, shows support for the leading opposition Social Democratic Party, SDP, is continuing to grow.


With more than 220,000 votes, the SDP is currently the strongest party in the Muslim-Croat federation. The ruling Muslim nationalist Party of Democratic Action, SDA, registered another significant decline in its popularity and is trailing behind SDP in most election races.


At state level, the SDP is close behind the nationalist Serb Democratic Party, SDS, which so far gathered some 244,000 votes.


The SDS, formed by the most wanted war crimes suspect, Radovan Karadzic, appears to have been resurrected. Yet when assessing these results, one should bear in mind that much of its support comes from followers of the Serb Radical Party, SRS, which was banned from participating in the ballot.


Compared to the combined SDS-SRS results from the 1998 poll, the 2000 general election showed a drop in the number of Serb voters supporting the hard-line option.


Despite its fierce pre-election campaign, the ruling Croat Democratic Union, HDZ, also registered a slump in popularity, down at least 20,000 votes on its 1998 results.


According to these figures, none of the parties will have an absolute majority in any of the state or entity parliaments, another improvement on the last general election when nationalist parties won overwhelming majorities.


But these positive trends have done little to alleviate the disappointment felt by many local and international experts who believe the opposition parties underachieved.


The general consensus is that the dirty and fierce pre-election campaigns of the HDZ and the SDA stoked up ethnic fears and tensions, robbing the opposition parties of a significant number of votes across the country.


During the pre-election period, the two parties managed to divert public attention away from bread-and-butter issues to the nationalist bigotry of old. Inflammatory speeches, which increased ethnic violence and tensions, very much resembled the prelude to the Bosnian war in 1992.


The climax of these campaigns was the illegal referendum organised by Bosnian Croat hard-liners on election day, in defiance of the international community.


While it does not explicitly mention forming a separate Croatian entity in Bosnia, the HDZ referendum was seen as an attempt by Bosnian Croat hard-liners to prepare the ground for the secession of Herzegovina from the rest of Bosnia, in the event of election results not going their way.


The HDZ ruse proved to be effective. The party won more votes than in the April local election, and significantly more than surveys conducted over the past few months had predicted. What's worse, the HDZ's radical rhetoric seems to have affected not only Bosnian Croats voters, but Muslims and Serbs as well.


The party's referendum created a "nationalist domino effect," bolstering support for the SDS and SDA.


And although several international officials hailed the November ballot as a success, developments and announcements over the past few days show it was far from perfect.


On Thursday afternoon, the Election Appeals Sub-Commission, EASC, declared that the HDZ referendum was "a serious violation of election rules and regulations." The body also barred some HDZ candidates from taking up seats in a number of assemblies because of the party's repeated refusal to disclose its financial arrangements.


The EASC warned that unless it complied, the HDZ would face even more severe punishment. In response, the party said it would not participate in new parliaments and governments until the EASC withdrew its sanctions.


EASC also removed a handful of candidates from the SDA party and Haris Silajdzic's Party for Bosnia-Herzegovina, SZBiH, for violations of election rules and regulations.


In addition, Provisional Election Commission, or PEC, said it would cancel SDS seats won in Srebrenica, where a local poll was held alongside the main election ballot. The move came after the OSCE confirmed that some local party officials were involved in widespread fraud, which included threatening voters and arranging for some people to vote several times.


PEC said the SDS has until November 24 to dismiss all the officials involved in the irregularities, and to publicly distance itself from them. If not, the party would lose the rest of the seats it won in Srebrenica, it warned.


EASC and PEC are still considering dozens of complaints and appeals from other political parties and organizations, and their decisions could further change the results, but not by much.


What's clear is that Bosnia's third post-war general election ballot has established the Bosnian opposition SDP party as an equal to the hard-line parties. But with none able to muster parliamentary majorities, it will be up to smaller parties to decide which of the main parties will form the state and entity governments.


Janez Kovac is a regular IWPR contributor


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