What is happening?
Deeply divided, Bosnia and Herzegovina goes to the polls on Sunday, amid a background of unemployment, corruption and rising ethnic tensions that could lead to the country breaking up.
How does Bosnia’s system of government work and why is it so complicated?
Bosnia’s system of government is extremely complex and a legacy of the 1995 Dayton Accords that ended the three-year civic war that pitted Bosnia’s Serbs against its Croats and Muslims.
The country is split into two entities; the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, home to the Muslim-majority Bosniaks and Croats, and the Republika Srpska, home to the country’s Serb population.
Bosnia elects no less than three presidents, to represent each of the country’s three ethnic groups – Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats. Sunday also sees the election of Bosnia’s parliament.
Who are the main runners and riders?
The national presidency — the country’s outward face — is arguably the most high-profile position with more than a dozen candidates in the running to fill the three posts. The two favourites to win the Serb and Croat presidencies each have an ultimate aim of breaking away from Bosnia.
Milorad Dodik, the favourite to beat the incumbent, Mladen Ivanic, has long campaigned for Republika Srpska’s independence and has honoured the convicted Serb war criminal, Radovan Karadzic, by naming a university building after him. The man who could become Bosnia’s Serb president has denied the Srebrenica massacre was genocide.
Dragan Covic, who is campaigning to become the Croat president, is an equally controversial figure, who has been tried and acquitted in three separate corruption trials. In 2005 he was sacked as Bosnia’s Croat president by Paddy Ashdown, who was then the High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina, charged with implementing the Dayton Accords. Covic’s opponent, Zeljko Komsic, is campaigning against the break-up of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
The Bosniak president, Bakir Izetbegovic, cannot run again because he has reached the maximum of two terms in office. The two favourites to succeed him are his party colleague, Sefik Dzaferovic, and the media mogul, Fahrudin Radoncic, who is sometimes referred to as “Bosnia’s Berlusconi’.
Radoncic, who launched his first newspaper while living in the besieged city of Sarajevo, has formed his own political party, The Union for a Better Future. Dzaferovic is Izetbegovic’s choice to succeed him, even though the outgoing president concedes Dzaferovic lacks charisma.
What are the main issues?
Although more than half of Bosnia’s young people are unemployed, there is a national brain drain and the healthcare system is collapsing, nationalism is likely to be the main issue in Sunday’s election.
Bosnia’s youth unemployment stood at 54.8% last year – almost double that of neighbouring Croatia and Serbia – and this, together with widespread corruption, is pushing people to migrate.
Jasmin Mujanovic, an expert on Bosnian politics from Elon University in North Carolina, said: “There is a catastrophic brain drain that has only accelerated over the last four years and all the parties have now started talking about it. It’s compounded by a declining birth rate and we’re facing demographic collapse in the very near term.
“But in practice these issues are not discussed in a meaningful fashion. Political discourse remains steeped in nationalist brinkmanship, paranoia and chauvinism.
“Among the nationalist parties at least, the main campaign issues are either ‘we’re going to kill the other side or we’re going to keep you from getting killed by the other side’.”
Alida Vracic, a political scientist and founder of the think-tank Populari, told Euronews voter apathy and patronage politics meant little is likely to change going forward.
“It’s a matter of civic society waking up and demanding things,” she said. “People outside of Bosnia are active about every issue that bothers them. The way to do it is to put more pressure on the government, I don’t think we do enough of it.
“Unless there is pressure on the government they won’t deliver, why would they? This makes them extremely comfortable because the threshold is low. In a country as fragile as Bosnia that was at war in the 1990s it seems you don’t have to deliver anything as a politician and you still remain in power.”
How bad is corruption in Bosnia?
The run-up to the election has seen an unprecedented spate of campaigning violations, abuse of public funds and hate speech, anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International (TI) said on Thursday.
The campaign has been awash with the sort of divisive ethnic rhetoric that helped trigger the 1992-95 war, raising doubts on whether the country will be able to pursue a path towards European Union and NATO membership after the vote, it said.
Officials in the main Serb, Croat, and Bosniak Muslim parties have also sought to “buy” votes from public employees by opening new public roads and offering free medical check-ups, and threatening those who reject the blandishments, the Bosnian branch of Transparency International said in a report.
“Party functions have totally merged with public functions,” said TI Bosnia programme manager Ivana Korajlic, adding that there had not been such a blatantly dirty election campaign since the 1990s war.
“The abuses have been conducted in the most open manner ever. Direct threats and attacks, pressures on voters and vote-buying, which in the past had been somehow subtle, have become fully transparent. There are no attempts even to conceal them.”
Is there any hope for Bosnia?
As far as Jasmin Mujanovic is concerned, nothing will change while nationalists like Covic and Dodik have a grip on Bosnian politics.
Dodik, 59, was seen as a reformer when he first took office in 1998 and was supported by both the EU and the US. However, after losing power, he returned as an extreme nationalist. “It’s at the point now that he is arguably on par with the kind of rhetoric that we heard from the likes of Radovan Karadzic in the 1990s,” said Mujanovic.
“He routinely and daily negates not just a genocide in Srebrenica but that there was any kind of war crimes committed by the Serb nationalist forces.”
“He is not a guy that is going to give up power peacefully, he’s not a guy that is going to abide by the results of the elections and he’s deeply and profoundly deepening his relationship with the Russians.”
Can things possibly improve?
Jasmin Mujanovic believes that for as long as the EU fails to address the situation in Bosnia, men like Dodik and Cavic will continue to wield power.
“The international community, and in particular the EU, has completely abandoned the idea of substantive constitutional and political reform in Bosnia,” he said. “And that’s played directly into the hands of these malign, entrenched and reactionary political figures.
“It’s very difficult at this point to see a way forward. To my mind you need a very concerted battle or war against organised crime and corruption. Because that is ultimately how you get these people out of power and create the means and capacity for a slow, piecemeal reform process.”