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Bosnia

Capital Sarajevo
Time Zone CET (GMT+1)
Country Code 387
Mobile Codes 61,62,63
ccTLD .ba
Currency Bosnian Convertible Mark (1EUR = 1,96 BAM)
Land Area 51,129 sq km
Population 4 million
Language Bosnian, Croatian, Serbian
Major Religion Islam, Roman Catholicism and Orthodox Christianity

The 2016 Local Elections in Bosnia: a Win for the Major Ethno-nationalist Parties

Balkanalysis.com editor’s note: for deeper insight from this author on political and social change in modern Bosnia, see her e-book, 20 Years after Dayton: Where Is Bosnia and Herzegovina today?

By Lana Pasic

On October 2, 2016, the seventh local elections were held in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Although 3,263,906 citizens had a right to vote, the election turnout was low, as in the previous years, seeing only 53.88% turnout, according to preliminary results, with 6% of votes being invalid. Some 30,027 candidates were in the running for the positions of mayors and their place in the city and municipal councils.

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Political rivals peer from campaign posters in Bosnia, ahead of local elections.

The election campaign: referendum and war-mongering 

This year’s election campaign was intense and aggressive. Door-to-door campaigning, persistent telephone calls, promises of jobs, and offers of vote-buying have all been present in previous elections as well, but this year political parties seemed to have more zest and determination in ensuring a victory for their candidates.

Irregularities were reported both before and during the election process. The watchdog body Pod Lupom (Under the Magnifying Glass) reported 173 critical situations and 125 cases of citizens reporting misconduct or irregularities during the elections – the largest number since the Dayton Peace agreement was signed in 1995. These cases included minor and major issues, from pressuring and influencing voters, to people voting several times.

In one of the municipalities in Herzegovina, Stolac, the polls were closed early and elections are to be repeated due to irregularities, and to a physical attack on the president of the municipal electoral board, as well as to alleged irregularities in the voting process.

The only municipality where no elections were held was Mostar. The last local elections in Mostar were held in 2008, and since then, the political stalemate has prevented citizens from casting their votes, as Bosniak and Croat parties have not been able to reach an agreement on the electoral regulation, nor for local administration.

The political parties and candidates have touched upon all topics, with few references made to the actual authorities and tasks of the local governments. The campaign in Republika Srpska was run around the referendum for keeping the date of January 9th the national day of the entity. With 55.67% election turnout and 99.81% of the votes for “yes”, the referendum (which took place just a week before the elections) secured Dodik’s Independent Social Democrat’s Party (SNSD) strong support and a large percentage of votes.

On the other hand, in the Federation, the candidates went as far as discussing the potential for the emergence of another armed conflict in the country. The persistence of ethno-politics and war-mongering were just some of the tactics to mobilize the electorate and ensure the support for the “protectors of the national interest”, which are the main ethno-nationalist parties – Izetbegovic’s SDA in the Federation, and SNSD in the Republika Srpska.

Winners and losers: ethnic nationalism and a weak left

The preliminary results unsurprisingly indicate that SDA and SNSD have maintained and entrenched their positions as the strongest political parties in two entities.

The SDA and SBB alliance won 34 municipalities. The alliance between the two largest Bosniak parties in the Federation was made in 2015, after the leaders of the two parties were in a fierce competition for the seat in the presidency during the 2014 elections.

In Republika Srpska, SNSD won in 26 municipalities, extending its influence in certain towns which were previously in the hands of the Serbian Democratic Party (SDS). Meanwhile, the  Croatian Democratic Alliance (HDZ) won mayoral races in 18 municipalities, and the Social Democratic Party (SDP) in 8 municipalities.

Although the preliminary results indicate victory for the nationalist and conservative blocs, in the Federation, a closer look at the statistics, particularly in Sarajevo, indicates that there is still significant support for the options on the political left. However, these are fragmented across several parties – SDP, Nasa Stranka, DF and the newly established GS. Following the failure of the once major leftist party, SDP, in the previous elections, the party has come back stronger, maintaining its position in Tuzla, and winning several other municipalities.

The election results, although disappointing to the progressives, are not at all surprising, particularly after the 2014 elections, and considering the state of the weak and fragmented opposition, as well as low election turnout.

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.

Protests in Post-Dayton Bosnia and the Failure of the Social Contract

Balkanalysis.com editor’s note: the following article complements the author’s newly-released e-book for Kindle, 20 Years after Dayton: Where is Bosnia and Hercegovina Today? The uniquely personal yet objective study combines analysis of the factors that have shaped post-conflict Bosnia with anecdotes from a range of local voices from Bosnia, enriching our understanding of the Bosnian experience before, during and after the war.

By Lana Pasic

At a public meeting organised by a small political party in Sarajevo, a few people got up to ask questions. However, no question was asked- instead, they talked about everything that was bothering them: poverty, unemployment, social injustice and so on. As they spoke, a sense of anxiety, bitterness and depression filled the room.

At times, Sarajevo seems to be completely removed from the reality of life in Bosnia and Herzegovina, just like most capital cities are unaware of developments in the rest of the country. Yet Bosnia’s capital has not escaped the rising inequalities and growing urban poverty of the time. While the city is buzzing with crowded coffee shops, the number of beggars on the streets and older people going through rubbish bins searching for food early in the morning is increasing daily. The number of those who are disappointed, dissatisfied and angry is also growing- as is their desire for a better life.

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This dissatisfaction, disillusionment and bitterness over social inequality erupted during February 2014, when citizens throughout Bosnia and Herzegovina rose up against the political elite, protesting against privatization deals, labor market conditions, corruption, social injustices and overall political inefficiency.

The political, institutional, economic and social shortcomings of the Bosnian state over the last twenty years have impacted deeply on the economic status and living standard of the population. Poverty levels reached 17.9% by 2011, according to World Bank data. There are large differences between the average salary in the country between the $430 (€400) per month made by regular workers, and the $3,200 (€3,000) per month which government officials receive. Due to income inequalities, the social gap is widening, and there are little prospects for the new generations to bridge this gap, as both unemployment and youth unemployment are extremely high.

“Overall, we are in pretty bad shape economically. Unemployment, which is now at a staggering 40%, is nowhere near coming down.” Milan, Banja Luka

Industry in Bosnia and Herzegovina was doing well before the war, but after Dayton, formerly state-owned and worker-managed companies were privatized, often for little money. The privatization phenomenon changed the rules of the game, and poor management also resulted in the failure of the factories to contribute to the pensions and health insurance for the workers, who have, due to legal requirements, remained in their jobs for years, but without pay. This situation has created further frustration, inequalities, and workers, without an opportunity to provide for their livelihoods, are slipping deeper and deeper into poverty.

“When I decided to study Economics in 2002, I hoped that when I graduated I would find a job. I was full of enthusiasm about my life, and the future of the country. Now that I have been unemployed for six years, I feel very differently about the whole situation.” Jennie, Sarajevo

Rising Against the System

Since the end of the war, the Bosnian public has been considered rather shy about engaging in popular protests, in order to make demands on the government, due to a general disillusionment that anything can be changed by local politicians. However, political, economic and social mismanagement has over the years inspired a number of uprisings, protests and other expressions of civil dissatisfaction. Large-scale protests have shaken the foundations of, if not the state, then certainly the entity-level politics.

Various groups initiated protests and supported others in solidarity: railway employees, veterans, pensioners and students, over issues ranging from labour legislations and agricultural policies to social policies and pensions. Agricultural workers have blocked the borders with neighbouring countries, and taken to parliaments over issues like export restrictions; they have similarly brought up the failures of Bosnian representatives to devise common regulations. They camped in front of the Bosnian Parliament and state institutions for two years over the signing of the CEFTA agreement, and in protest over perceived inadequate subsidies and protectionist measures for local producers.

“I believe that change will come only when economic pressures become so strong that they translate into political pressure. “ Dino, Sarajevo

In the summer of 2013, a wave of new civic activism was motivated by the deadlock over identity numbers allocated at birth, which led to the blockade of the Parliament. In a follow up, in February 2014, workers of privatized factories in Tuzla initiated the country-wide protests, and were supported by youth, veterans and pensioners, who gathered in front of government offices, demanding political, economic and social changes.

Plenums – a New Form of Democracy

The 2014 protests brought with them a new form of civic participation in Bosnia and Herzegovina – plenums. These forums were public spaces where people in certain areas organized themselves into “working groups”. The groups quickly identified and presented their demands to the government. However, the number and scope of demands voiced during plenums was just as high as the number of citizens attending them. They included issues ranging from the reductions of politicians’ salaries, revision of budgets, establishment of independent anti-corruption committee, free health care, banning of nationalist parties, abolition of cantons, reducing the costs of administration, re-evaluation of privatisation deals, reducing salaries and benefits for high-ranking officials, fixing youth employment and so on. Some of the demands were met, but others were clearly not fitting the jurisdictions of the governments they protested against.

“I actively participated in the protests in Tuzla – I felt that this was finally our chance to make changes in the political and administrative arrangements in Bosnia, to be part of positive developments. When the protests started, I was very optimistic. There was a scent of change in the air. The whole city came together; going to a protest was like socialising. I really felt for the workers and their problems. There are people in our country who really have nothing, who need help, and there are some deep systemic changes which need to happen to improve their lives. We needed to discuss these root causes of the problems, instead of dealing with it one factory at a time.

I also joined the plenums in Tuzla when they were formed, but I was soon disappointed. We had a great opportunity then, but the plenums failed. The issue with plenums was that people talked so much about the problems, which we are all aware of, but they did not seem to be prepared to do any work. There were too many people involved – which was great, because there was a wider participation, but there was no leader. We needed someone who would listen to workers grievances, and popular demands and complaints, and be prepared to make difficult decisions.“  Adis, Tuzla

These citizens’ assemblies presented a potential for alternative ways of doing politics- they challenges the traditional political structures, presented local expressions of bottom-up democracy and were open to all, regardless of ethnicity and background, except to members of political parties.

In spite of initial unrests during the protests, the plenums were completely peaceful forums, with free and open discussions taking place among those attending. Through their use of social media and ICT, they allowed all citizens to engage in politics, particularly as traditional media are manipulated by different political parties. However, they were short-lived. Although the idea of an open democratic space where all citizens can share their views was a tempting experiment, the lack of leadership and management of demands eventually resulted in the failure of the plenums.

 Protests as Means of Change?

Social inequality and dissatisfaction remain high on the agenda in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Although no major protests have taken place over the last two years, during which time plenums have ceased their activities, the potential for civil unrest remains present.

However, their potential to make sudden, long-term changes is questionable. The 2014 protests were often falsely referred to in the international media as the “Bosnian Spring” – yet these claims have failed to take into consideration the specificities of Bosnia’s internal structures and politicization of ethnicity. The complex structures of the Bosnian state, its entities and cantons, the presence of international actors, including not only the OHR, but also the World Bank and the IMF, are all factors which citizens may have issues with, but in reality they cannot be resolved through a revolution. Comprehensive political, economic and social changes cannot happen overnight, nor be imported from outside.

In spite of their limited potential to make immediate social transformation, popular protests will remain an important tool of civil society in B&H. Citizen-led changes are not only taking place during the elections. Plenums and protests are just some of the ways of public advocacy, holding politicians to account and exerting public pressure on them to either step up to the difficult task of working in the public interest, or step down from office. The rebuilding of social contract requires both, public pressure and political willingness and commitment to best respond to the needs of all citizens, which is going to be a long-term process, especially in a society where trust in political processes and state institutions is low.