Elections in Bosnia—Business as usual?

15 October, 2014

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Elections in Bosnia—Business as usual?

The Bosnian elections last Sunday brought change, but it seems unlikely that they will make a difference. There is no clear heading under which the election results can be summarized. The return of nationalist does it little justice. First, the Party of Democratic Action, the main national Bosniak party, won a clear victory in the Federation, becoming the largest party in every single canton with a Bosniak majority. In all Croat dominated cantons, HDZ became the largest party. In addition, both parties won the respective seats in the Bosnian presidency. However, this result is less a resounding return of national parties as a defeat of the Socialdemocrats (SDP). In 2006 and 2010 the SDP won the Croat member of the presidency with their popular candidate Željko Komšić who did not run this time and split from the SDP to establish his fairly successful Democratic Front. Thus, the victory of HDZ was a result of the lack of a strong competitor who could mobilize also non Croats to vote for a Croat candidate. While the main contender Martin Raguž of HDZ 1990 tried to do this, he was unable to appeal to both the core Croat constituency and to self-identified Bosnian or Bosniaks. Instead, Čović with his superior party apparatus won. Among Bosniak candidates, the field was crowded, but Bakir Izetbegović, the incumbent won over conservative challengers like the former head of the Islamic community, Mustafa Cerić, the 'controversial' businessman Fahrudin Radončić and the leftist candidates (realizing that such labels are tricky in Bosnian politics), Emir Suljagić of the Democratic Front and Bakir Hadžiomerović from SDP. The victory of Izetbegović and Čović is victory for well-organised parties and a defeat of Socialdemocrats who have been seen by voters as the main culprits for the lack of progress in the past four years.

In the RS, the picture is more complicated. Dodik and his “Alliance of Independent Socialdemocrats” (neither an alliance, nor independent, nor socialdemocratic) lost a lot of support, including their post in the state presidency. However, the victory of Mladen Ivanić might prove a Pyrrhic victory, as the opposition failed to capture the presidency of the RS from Dodik, even though it got very close, and it looks like Dodik’s party will hang on to power in the parliament of the RS. Thus, Dodik is considerably weaker than he was four years ago, but he is hanging on.

The results thus show a weakening of the incumbent in the RS and a defeat in the Federation. The result is a return to power of parties that have dominated politics in Bosnia before 2010 and displayed little ability or willingness to pursue a more constructive or reform-oriented political agenda. Thus, the elections are change without change.

A central feature of Bosnian politics that has contributed to the sense of disempowerment among many citizens has been the perception that nobody ever loses office and everybody is in power somewhere. Thus, SDA was not in power in the Federation, but it held the Bosniak presidency member, HDZ was first locked out of power, but came back later as the government was reshuffled. The party of Fahrudin Radončić joined government, but then he was dismissed in the spring. The main opposition parties in the RS were at least for some time part of the governing coalition at the state level. The lines between opposition and government became so blurred that the combination of multiple layers of government, grand coalitions and instable majority resulted in a dynamic where everybody was in power and nobody was to blame. The protests in February 2014 were not least a product of this general sense that the entire political elite is not only discredited, but also indistinguishable. The elections provides for an opportunity to have a (for Bosnian standards) clearly majority and an opposition and thus to provide for an opportunity for more clear-cut political competition. However, the fruits of such clarity will take some time and the electoral system that gives disproportional weight to smaller parties might throw a wrench in such a dynamic.

The key question in the coming months and years will be, whether the political left, represented by the SDP and the Democratic Front in the Federation, is able to form a coherent and reformed political option. Key will be the ability of the SDP to reform and rid itself of Zlatko Lagumdžija, the now longest serving party president with Milorad Dodik. In the RS, the question will be whether the opposition will be able to continue confronting Dodik and potentially pulling some its coalition partners on their side.

Finally, a note about the EU, although released the latest progress report just a few days before the elections, it seems to have had little impact. This is again a reflection of the apparent lack of choice, everybody is for EU accession and so EU accession has become such a bland and universally shared (and equally universally disregarded) goal that it (currently) fails to work as a yardstick according to which measure the performance of political parties.

A striking feature of the election is the continued dominance of long established politicians on the Bosnian scene. While there are few small signs of change, such as the entry of Naša Stranka into the Federation parliament, politics is very dominated those who have been at it for a long time, whether it is those who lost or those won these elections. Thus, change does not come through elections, but through the four long years in between. Whether this will be through a change of parties and their leaders or through pressure from below is unclear, but it seem likely that only a combination of the two might bring more substantial change. In the meantime, it is business as usual for Bosnia and this is hardly good news.

Written by:
  • Florian Bieber Director, Centre for Southeast European Studies at the University of Graz
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