Capital Sarajevo
Time Zone CET (GMT+1)
Country Code 387
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Political Rallies in Republika Srpska: Shows of Force ahead of Local Elections

By Lana Pasic

Over the last few weeks, several protest movements have been activated in the Western Balkans. Demonstrations and counter-demonstrations in Macedonia, protests in Kosovo, political turmoil and government restructuring in Montenegro and political and socio-economic protests in Bosnia and Herzegovina have been in the headlines for over a month.

Government and Opposition Blocs Face Off

Such events have often been presented (in foreign media especially) as the first signs of an imminent ‘Balkan spring,’ though this debatable. In the case of Bosnia, the most coverage has been given to the gatherings which took place in Banja Luka over the last weekend, when both the governing coalition and the opposition parties held public rallies with their supporters.

The overlapping of opposing political rallies in Republika Srpska was well organized. After the Alliance for Change (comprising the main opposition parties in the RS, including SDS and the PDP) announced a protest in Banja Luka, Milorad Dodik’s SNSD responded by organising a counter-rally on the same day.

The two gatherings took place barely kilometers apart, which caused concerns over safety and potential outbreaks of violence. It was the political rhetoric behind the rallies, rather than any actual fear of clashes, that caused tensions, with sensationalist announcements made on both sides.

Some 400 buses of supporters came to Banja Luka, 250 to show allegiance to the government, the remaining buses conveying opposition followers. It was estimated that some 10,000 citizens attended the opposition protest, although the opposition leaders claim a higher number, while Dodik’s supporters numbered almost 30,000.

Further tensions were caused a day later, as the opposition leaders announced a protest and held a press conference in the Serbian capital of Belgrade, claiming that the SNSD is destabilising the entity. This gave a regional dimension to the rallies, spreading uncertainty further throughout an already tense neighborhood. None of the safety fears materialized, and both gatherings ended peacefully, with no clashes between the supporters of the opposing parties.

An Eclectic Manifesto and Discourse over Elections

Although the opposition rally initially aimed to highlight the alleged political and economic failures of the government, which has been in power for 12 years, their demands were so diverse – ranging from the early elections, paying out the overdue assistance to war veterans and child assistance, introduction of agricultural subsidies, ending concessions over natural resources and revision of electricity price hikes – that the government barely took note of their manifesto.

Instead, it focused vaguely on the issue of early parliamentary elections. It was clear that SNSD saw this event as an opportunity to count their supporters, and the rallies were thus just a show of force for both sides ahead of local elections. The elections are planned for first week of October, and political parties are expected to announce their candidates at the end of this week.

Even though the opposition brought up the issues of corruption, economic mismanagement and social injustice, these rallies had political rather than socio-economic motivations. To add to that, the opposition parties in both Republika Srpska and the Federation are certainly not the best advocates for anti-corruption actions. This is particularly the case for SDS, which had a very poor record of democratic rule and social distribution, and lost power largely due to corruption and political inefficiency.

Nevertheless, the social and economic questions which were raised by them remain relevant, and are not closer to being resolved than they were during the countrywide protests in 2014.

A Social Agenda and Local Elections

In the meantime, they continue to take the backseat in both political circles, and the media. While the politically sensationalized protests in Banja Luka became regional and international news, the socio-economic protests in Bosnia and Herzegovina this past week received very little attention.

Just days after the Banja Luka gathering, war veterans in the Federation protested, demanding pensions and social assistance, while factory workers blocked a major highway because of a failed privatization. Meanwhile, citizens in Sarajevo protested against the justice system’s failures to resolve a recent murder case.

While the protests are likely to continue, particularly as we get closer to the elections, with both workers and war veterans announcing demonstrations in coming week, it is unlikely that they will spark significant political or economic shifts.

Conclusion: Little Change Expected

While a potential change of local representatives during the elections may occur, this change will also have limited effects on social and economic policies, particularly as the current main opposition parties are certainly no outsiders to political office. In both entities, the main opposition – SDS and PDP in Republika Srpska, and SBB and DF in the Federation – have either been in power themselves or as coalition partners of the existing governments. In both cases, their record in office has been pitiful.

Meanwhile, the smaller local parties may have a better chance at bringing new social and economic agendas to the electorate; still, voters are generally still quite disillusioned by the democratic process and sensationalism, and it is thus unlikely that we will witness a higher voter turnout than during the 2014 general elections.