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Underwhelming Bosnian Ballot

Bosnia half-heartedly gears up for local elections amid concerns that voter turnout could be low.
By Nick Hawton

The people of Bosnia and Herzegovina are taking part in nationwide local ballots on October 2, with pre-election campaigning notably low-key.


For the first time, mayors will be directly elected in municipalities across the country and Mostar will vote for its first city council since political unification.


Voters will also select 142 municipal councils and there will be elections for the Banja Luka and the district of Brcko assemblies.


But despite the flurry of ballots, there's been little in the way of the feisty electioneering.


There have been the usual uninspiring election TV programmes and even less inspiring poster campaigns by the political parties. Sarajevo's billboards, in particular, have been inundated with pictures of large men with no hair and even meaner countenances.


A late effort by regional authorities to resurface roads and improve pavements, whilst welcome to voters, has fooled no-one by the timing.


There is real concern that the country's 2.3 voters million are just not being sufficiently turned on.


“At the end of the day, it doesn't really matter who's elected,” said Mirela Babovic, 40, who works as an administrator in Sarajevo's tax office. “They're all the same, these politicians. Whoever takes power, nothing ever changes.”


A statement to be repeated a thousand times in coffee bars across the country.


But despite the cynicism, some real questions will be answered on election day.


To what extent will nationalist parties build on their successes from the last general election? Will sufficient numbers of people vote to make the elections truly representative? What are the key issues for voters?


In the last parliamentary and presidential ballot in October 2002, nationalist parties made a strong comeback across Bosnia.


The three ethnic state presidential positions went to the three main Muslim, Serb and Croat parties. The latter also took or retained control of the state, Federation and Republika Srpska, RS, parliaments.


The international community, in the form of chief international envoy to Bosnia Lord Ashdown, was shocked by the scale of the nationalists’ success but quickly insisted they had changed their spots since the dark days of the 1990s.


Lord Ashdown said he was prepared to work with anyone who was willing to embrace reform. More embracing with the nationalists may be on the way.


At the last general election, the progressive Social Democratic Party, SDP, under Foreign Minister Zlatko Lagumdzija suffered a crushing defeat. It is by no means clear the party has fully recovered.


“Although [it] has run a very [vocal] campaign, it's questionable how much the SDP has managed to consolidate after its fall in 2002, and to what extent [it] can regain the trust of the electorate,” said political commentator Senad Slatina. Such a situation leaves the door open for the nationalist Muslim Party of Democratic Action, SDA.


In RS, the more moderate Party of Independent Social Democrats, SNSD, is expected to make more headway against the nationalist Serbian Democratic Party, SDS. But observers expect the latter to retain control in many areas.


This time, however, Lord Ashdown is more prepared to deal with any nationalist success.


“The international community in [Bosnia] has to work with the voters' choice,” he told IWPR. “If we preach democracy then we are obliged to stand by our principals and uphold the electoral process. The important thing here is not what parties are called, or what label they carry, but what they do.”


One of the reasons for the success of nationalist parties in the 2002 general election was the low turnout. Only around 55 per cent of the electorate voted, 10 per cent less than the previous poll.


Nationalist parties usually do better when turnout is low because their supporters are easier to mobilise. It was partly for this reason that the nationalist Serbian Radical Party was able to make significant gains in the December 2003 general election in Serbia.


Whilst such predictions are always dangerous, indications are that turnout may also be low this time round.


The Organisation for Security and Cooperation, OSCE, in Bosnia has been closely following the election campaign and has conducted its own polls.


“Of those interviewed in our most recent poll, only 28 per cent said they would definitely vote, 22 per cent said they would probably do so, but 32 per cent said that they would not vote,” said Trefor Williams, director of the Democratisation Department at the OSCE in Sarajevo.


“A turnout of this order, around 50 per cent, would be much lower than at the last municipal election four years ago when the turnout was around 65 per cent. A low turnout figure is a real possibility and that would obviously be disappointing for Bosnia and for the political process here.”


Talk to people across Bosnia and there is a single issue that dominates - jobs.


Official unemployment figures hover around the 40 per cent mark and the economy continues to struggle, showing no real signs of being able to break its dependence on international financial aid.


Whilst the issue of jobs and the economy dominates, there are other serious political issues specific to certain regions.


In the RS, there is the ongoing struggle between the SDS and the SNSD. The SNSD made big gains at the last general election and could do well again. The SDS is involved in its own internal power struggle as RS president Dragan Cavic tries to maintain control over the party against the hardliners.


In Mostar, these will be the first elections for a united city assembly following the abolition of the municipalities by Lord Ashdown in January.


The SDA and Croat nationalist Croatian Democratic Union, HDZ, will be jockeying for position to see who will establish political control of the city. Real progress has been made in bringing the two sides together but the proof will be in the pudding when the votes are counted and the two parties have to get down to the real business of governing.


In the district of Brcko, these will be the first local elections since the founding of the district in March 2000. The new assembly will have powers which elsewhere are held at cantonal, entity or state level. The international supervisor for Brcko, Susan Johnson, has called on voters to turn out in large numbers to vote for authorities who “will have a direct impact on your life”.


The central issue of these elections is whether people can be persuaded to re-engage in the political process. The signs are not good. A low turn out is a real possibility and even when the new municipal assemblies are in place, there are real questions as to whether they will be able to do much anyway because of lack of money.


The lack of funds is so immediate that municipalities have been claiming they do not even have enough cash to pay for the polling station committees for these elections.


But there may be some positive signs for the future. Lidija Karac, who sits on the state election commission, believes the new system of directly elected mayors, can help the political process.


“It should raise the responsibility of municipal mayors in the performance of their duties more towards the citizens rather than the political parties they represent. The system of elected mayors gives a great opportunity to the citizens of [Bosnia]to improve political life in their municipality and thereby improve their quality of life,” she said.


And voters have no shortage of choice. Sixty-eight political parties are offering their services on election day with a total of 27,400 candidates, of which 800 are standing for mayor. Take your pick.


Nick Hawton is the BBC Balkans correspondent based in Sarajevo.


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