Elections in Bosnia and Herzegovina: A system of separation

Next Sunday the elections in Bosnia and Herzegovina will be held. Politics is dominated by nationalism and corruption; the economy is weak. Especially young people want to leave the country.

The parliament of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

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Anja Jerkovic returned to Bosnia and Herzegovina — contrary to the emigration trend of the country. Four years ago, the 29-year-old visited her native town Mostar for the first time as adult. This year she moved in the city in the Herzegovina, which is famous for its old bridge. She grew up in the US, where her family still lives. In 1992 the family had left Mostar due to the fights. Now, Jerkovic lives in the house of her parents in the Western part of the city. This is quite exceptional, as her roots are Bosniak and in the West of the city the Croat part is dominating. In turn, the Bosniaks account for a majority in the East.

Before the war, both ethnic groups have lived in harmony. But still, 20 years after the fights, the separation of the city continues nowadays. Although she does not really feel it, Jerkovic says. Friends and family in the US had been “very sceptical, that the things had changed here,” she tells. But she is strolling along the old bridge unhesitatingly, going to the mall and home in the West or visiting friends in the East. “If you are living here, the division is not so strong,” she tells. Lastly, Anja Jerkovic worked for a non-profit in Mostar, now she wants to contribute in opening an independent multicultural center in the city. Because the ethnic division is still visible on an institutional level. “There are two libraries, two universities,” she explains.

A symbol of unity — and separation: The old bridge, stari most, in Mostar.

It is this kind of separation, which shapes the political system of the country, which has elections on the state, entity and cantonal level. Every of the three main ethnic groups positions a president. The Serbs, religiously mainly orthodox, elect their president in the Republica Srpska, the Bosniaks, in majority Muslims, and the Croats, mainly Catholics, chose their representatives in the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Many citizens complain about an election campaign, which is based on nationalism and fear of each of the ethnic groups. “We are still talking about security and safety. The politicians want, that we still think about the sound of rifles from the 90s,” says Vernes Voloder, project manager at Nansen Dialogue Center (NDC) in Mostar. But more urgent would topics like infrastructure, hospitals or improvement of living quality. He sees Mostar as one of the negative results of the political relationships. The last elections here on local level have been held in 2012 — the dominant parties did not agree on a repartition of the constituencies after a judgement of the constitutional court. Therefore, the city is stuck in the status quo.

In contrast to this, Vernes Voloder sees a bigger progress when it comes to the social aspect, although some teenagers have never crossed the old bridge. In the year 2000 it had not been possible to enter the quarter of the other ethnic group. Nowadays this would be at least no problem in theory. “It was kind of a success to get people in the same room,” he remembers. Exchanging stories und explaining the own views, listening to the others, had caused a rapprochement: “They really got rid of these political or their parents burden and started thinking in a different way.”

But why is the ethnicity so much promoted, if, apparently, it is not present in this scale on the social level anymore? For this, it helps to change the location to Sarajevo, the capital of the country. Jakob Finci views the rhetoric sabre-rattling from a different perspective. He is president of the Jewish community, which as minority is not represented officially by any of the political officials. The 75-year-old sits in the last used Synagogue of the city and calmly speaks about the situation in the country. “Quite honestly, there is no ethnicity for us. Because all the people in this country look alike and on the street you cannot distinguish, who is who,” he says. Also, the language would be identic. Differences were present only in the religion. “And it is strange to have religion as a dividing force in 21st century, in a state, that is trying to be a democratic one and to become member of Nato and European Union in the very close future,” he thinks. A woman wearing a hijab next to a man wearing a kippa together in a shop is part of the everyday life in Sarajevo. “Bosnia Hercegovina is one of the few countries in Europe, absolutely free of antisemitism”, Finci says proudly. Jews live in the country for more than 450 years and were respected members of the society. This can be also seen by the fact, that Finci inter alia has been the ambassador to Switzerland, despite his belonging to a religious minority.

In Sarajevo people of all religions and ethnities live together.

Nevertheless, by law he is not treated equally in comparison with the three major ethnic groups. Despite his citizenship Finci is not allowed to run for a political position, as long as he does not define himself belonging to one of the three ethnic groups. This applies to all other citizens, minorities and even to the three ethnic groups, if the live in the entity, where the other ethnic group is predominant. “This means, that more than 300,000 people cannot even be candidate,” he criticizes. This means almost nine percent of the around 3.5 million people in the country. Thereby, the European Court for Human Rights (ECHR) had agreed with Jakob Finci and Dervo Sejdic, president of the Roma community, back in 2009 and demanded a constitutional change. In further decisions, this sentence has been renewed. But nothing happened. The coming elections are the third since this first ruling. “It is a bit ridiculous, that international community is tolerating something like this,” Finci says.

Country in a deadlock?

With all its problems, it easily seems that Bosnia and Herzegovina is stuck in a political deadlock. Often it can be heard, that nothing would change anyway. This is something, Osman Topcagic, until 2015 Bosnian ambassador to the EU, argues against. He is not denying, that many things on many levels need to be improved in the country. But he is also seeing progresses. As an example, he mentions the visa free travel to the Schengen states in 2010: “We needed to fulfil exactly 174 conditions. 174 exactly! Including new legislation or institutions. But we wanted to have it and we did it.” He thinks, that projects, of which everyone benefits regardless of ethnic or religious boundaries, could facilitate the unification process of the country. For example, the highway, the 5c corridor. “Obviously is something which lasts and will last,” he emphasizes. Hence, he calls the politics, to tackle projects like this together. Party or ethnic egotisms could be played off in other fields. As part of this “new culture in internal politics”, which Topcagic wishes, he further sees the country’s approach to join the European Union. In the middle of this year more than 77% of all Bosnians were in favour of an EU accession, according to a survey of the National Democratic Institute. Although he does not expect much from the new government in these regards, he hopes it will prioritize the accession. “All parties officially support Bosnia joining the European Union. Why don’t they work together then and fulfil those conditions for the benefit of everybody?,” he says. If the parties would record such joint successes, they possibly would find further common denominators for a collaboration in other topics.

Ivana Korajlic, Transparency International’s Acting Executive Director in Banja Luka, has a simple answer, why this is not happening. She takes nationalistic rhetoric of the politicians as pretext: “Because they want to protect their own interests, their own capital and the control over these institutions and these parts of the country.” She considers perceived approaches of an independent Republica Srpska or a third entity for the Croats as hollow words. Nevertheless, the picture she is drawing of the political landscape in the country, is still a very dark, deteriorated by corruption and favouritism. This equally applies to the state, entities and cantons. Almost all parties would pressure the employees in the agencies and institutions controlled by them to vote for them. This also applies to private companies, which are linked to politicians or governmental organisations. Sometimes, employees would be requested “to bring a list of additional people who will vote for them. So you are supposed the return the favour of getting a job by providing them with additional votes.” It is an open secret, that work in the public sector is often only possible with membership books or to buy in into a position. Also, that votes are bought on the street, country to the business in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Obvious violations

Especially in the Republica Srpska, whose seat of government Banja Luka is, the parties meanwhile became “very transparent about these practices”, Korajlic says. But criminal proceedings would be rare, as the parties have a big influence on the agencies. This is also the reason, why they want to remain in power: “They know once they lose, they will lose the control of the judiciary, of the law enforcement agencies.” This would open the way for investigations of their practices. But Korajlic also speaks about a self-censorship of the agencies, media and institutions — out of fear, to mess with anyone important. But on the long term, she does not see the system as sustainable: “We are running out of money.” Many people would already live worse than immediately after the war. The big administration — the state is the biggest employer of the country -, the governmental companies with their losses and debts, would have to accept hard cuts in case of a collapse. “And at some point, all of this will collapse,” Korajlic is afraid. Maybe this would be a turning point, on which it would be possible to rebuild the system.

But with elections alone it seems difficult to change the politics. Because with 200,000 people employed in the public sector, partisan election observers, the committees of the polling stations, candidates and their family members, up to 800,000 people could be influenced by parties, Dario Jovanovic fears. He is project director of Pod Lupom, which was found in 2014. It is a non-partisan organisation observing the elections, funded by the EU and USAID. In light of, that 1.7 of the 3.35 million eligible voters are expected at the ballot box, this is a significant share. „There are intimidations, buying of votes, threats with firings, offerings of new jobs, massive misuse of data and identity stealing, misuse of public resources, inaccurancies in voters lists in certain municipalities,“ the project director lists. A saying in the country is: Die elections are won before the election day. And this is not so wrong, Jovanovic says: „Many frauds happen before the election day.“ For this reason, his organisation and its partners begin to observe the six months lasting election campaign 30 days before it starts. „We observed more than 400 cases of forbidden promotion,“ he describes. It is only allowed in the time 30 days before the election day.

In Banja Luka and the Republica Srpska violations in the election campaigns are obvious.

Also, the already mentioned identity theft could have an impact on the elections. The number of post voters increased from 42,000 in 2014 to 78,000 now. “This can have a massive impact on elections on all levels,” Jovanovic stresses. In the country alone, Pod Lupom received hints of Thousands of cases of identity theft, in which post votes have been made by someone in the of others. Abnormalities like these were also discovered by Bosnians living abroad, especially in Croatia and Serbia, but also in Austria, Germany and Sweden. But also on the election day, the 4000 volunteer, non-partisan election observers need to be vigilant. “There is illegal trading of polling station committee memberships,” Jovanovic says. The committee is made of three to five members, who should be from different parties to control the elections and each other — also at the vote counting. But if independent members sell their seat or parties change members between the polling stations, this control mechanism is not provided. “We obtained, that there will be public announcements of the committee members,” Dario Jovanovic says. So, an external control is possible. He sees also positively, that the ballot boxes are now translucent. Further is has been a success for Pod Lupom, that the voting booth has been lowered, so the heads of the voters are visible. With this, it will be easier to discover family voting or if voters take pictures of their ballot.

A campaign stand in Sarajevo.

Dennis Gratz, retiring member of the House of Representatives in the Federation and former head of the anti-nationalistic party Nasa Stranka (“Our Party”), sees clear lacks in the political system, too. Because of a dispute with the party leaders he is withdrawing from politics after almost ten years. He speaks about a country in a “permanent crisis”. The vertical drift apart of the state is a result of the constitution based on ethnic groups and the party landscape. “And naturally, the nationalists are benefiting from this, as long as they are in position to distribute the money, which is available until now.” He also sees, that the system in its current form is not sustainable. But he hopes, that there will be a turning point before the collapse. He describes himself as a “very cautious optimist”. For this, he has reasons: “Actually, it is a minority voting for the nationalists. But concentrated on mainly three big nationalistic parties,” he says. The relative majority votes civically, he adds. But the party landscape is so split, that the effect of the elections is not unfolding. Also, the state is functioning, where it wants to. The taxation system for example is very efficient and he is not observing a political collapse now. “The country is unusually stable in a region, which is very instable,” he concludes. However, he is in favour of reforming the political system, away from ethnic to the spectre right, left, liberal, green. At the same time, “mechanism in the second chambers, on state and district level could be developed, to protect ethnic interests like language, culture and religion”.

Slow change

Until this happens, it could be already too late for the brothers Srdjan and Ognjen. They would like to leave Banja Luka and the country. Both are employed, but the salary of around 500 Euro is not even enough for an own flat. In their mid-thirties they are still living at their parent’s place. “Every day I have less desire to live here. It is not about the money but the atmosphere,” Ognjen says. The country would not be ready for a change. “I am afraid, that nothing will change. Even if the opposition wins.” The brothers belong the those, who are protesting now daily for almost 200 days, because of the murder of David Dragicevic. It is assumed, that the police is involved in the case. “Pravda za Davida,” they demand. Justice for David.

Pravda za Davida — justice for David the protestors demand.

Anja Jerkovic can understand, that the people want to leave. “They are thinking about their future,” the returnee says. For herself, it was important to come back — and she used the possibility, when it came up: “I wanted to know my roots, see, if I can change something.” But she knows about the unfair advantage she has. “I can leave anytime.”