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Analysis file

, Banja Luka, Bosnie-Herzégovine, July 2012

Bosnian Elections 2010: The failing of a consociationalist system

The appearance of a functioning democratic process provided by the elections does not necessarily translate into a functioning political system.

Keywords: | | Bosnia

Bosnia and Herzegovina (Bosnia) held elections on the 3rd October 2010. These were only the second run entirely by the national authorities since the end of the armed conflict in 1995, marked by the signing of the Dayton Peace Agreement (Dayton) (1). Despite being successful and peaceful elections, the delay to the formation of government lasted 15 months. This deadlock in forming a government was centred around questions of nationality, a question central to understanding the dysfunctions of the Bosnian political system. The nationalist parties, who are unwilling to change a system which guarantees their access to power, have continued to dominate politics in Bosnia.

This paper will analyse how the appearance of a functioning democratic process provided by the elections does not necessarily translate into a functioning political system. This is a result of the inadequate design of the political system that guarantees access to power for certain groups, rather than the ability of the people to choose their government.

The situation: overview of the political landscape

Bosnia’s political system was created in 1995 through the Dayton Accords, with the country being divided in two loosely joined parts. The country is split into two entities, one the Croat and Muslim Federation (Federation) split into 10 cantons, and the other Republika Srpska (RS)– the inter-entity divide is essentially based along the front-line as it existed at the time of Dayton. There are entity level governments, and the national level has jurisdiction over Brčko District, which belongs to neither side. There is also a parliament at the national level, with a tripartite presidency consisting of one Bosnian Croat, one Bosniak (Muslim) (both elected by the Federation) and one Bosnian Serb (elected by RS) who make up the three ‘constituent peoples’ of Bosnia, as recognised in the Dayton Accords. The tripartite presidency is symbolic of the problems of this political system – an overly complex arrangement that is designed to protect the interests of the whole population, but which instead just perpetuates divisions and has created a situation where reforms (for example to have one president) are resisted as they are seen by political actors only through the lens of a loss of political power and influence. This system is overseen by the Office of the High Representative (OHR) – an internationally sanctioned position put in place to oversee the civilian implementation of the Dayton Accords and to ensure that the situation evolved into a peaceful one where the country would function independently. The OHR still retains the power to remove officials and block legislation where these violate Dayton and the country has not yet completed all the conditions for its dissolution (for example resolution of the status of Brčko District and constitutional reform) but is often criticised for its lack of accountability, though it is still possible that without its presence the deadlock of internal politics would increase.

The campaigning in the lead up to the elections of October 2010 was a precursor to the issues that were to impede the formation of an effective government, as the campaigns of all parties were focused almost exclusively around the question of nationality and identity. (2)

Many who want change within Bosnia hope for (or despair of) progress away from nationality focused politics. Apart from preventing any further centralisation and unification of government within Bosnia, nationalism is effectively used to control the population and obscure more important issues. As with the slogans and campaigns of the elections, parties are formed around national questions – there is very little understanding or significance to the concept of ‘left’ and ‘right’ in Bosnian national politics. The other main consequence of this nationalistic focus is that there is little political attention on questions of the economy and corruption – without a doubt two of the most important issues within Bosnia. (3)

Abandoned house, Jajce

The elections themselves were carried off without significant incident, and according to the OSCE who was responsible for observing the vote and count were accomplished out without any significant problems or events. (4)

The same cannot however be said of the formation of government after the results were declared. The subsequent extended crisis, which ended with an initial agreement on the formation of a national government on the 28th December 2011, occurred over three different state structures: the two entity level governments, and the national government. As with the electoral campaigning the problems were focused around questions of nationality and national representation. The national government that was finally formed holds no surprises or innovations, so why, we are forced to ask ourselves, did we have to wait so long?

A move to more moderate politics, or the same tune from a different choir?

The results of the election held two surprises that seemed to indicate that the Bosnian electorate is moving away from its previous support for nationalist parties and becoming more moderate. The first was the close run race for the Bosnian-Serb seat of the national Presidency, where the candidate for the moderate Party of Democratic Progress (PDP) Mladen Ivanić came a close second to the winner and previous incumbent Nebojša Radmanović from the nationalist party the Alliance of Independent Social Democrats (SNSD), who was expected to retain this position without any serious contenders. In the Federation there was also a shift in the voting for presidential candidates, where Haris Silajdžić of the Bosniak nationalist Party for Bosnia and Herzgovina (SBiH) lost his seat to the more moderate Bakir Izetbegović from the Party of Democratic Action (SDA). These changes came with a higher than expected voter turnout. (5)

Within RS the election results were a lot less surprising, with a majority for SNSD, and Milorad Dodik at the head of this government as president. This does not however mean that the opportunity to participate in the national crisis by flexing nationalist muscle was passed up by either Dodik or the SNSD.

Nationalist interests in Republika Srpska

Apart from forming an alliance with Bosnian-Croat nationalists in order to bloc non-nationalist interests in both the Federation and national governments, the SNSD also partially followed through on its recurring electoral promise to hold a referendum on the question of RS independence from Bosnia.

On the 13 April 2011 the RS National Assembly approved the initiative to hold a referendum on the jurisdiction of the Bosnian state court in RS. This was accompanied by the use of divisive and extremist language, claiming a bias against Serbs at the state level. The provisions in the referendum targeted war crimes prosecutions, but used these as a political vehicle to enable the insulation of RS from the state Court of Bosnia – a move that would effectively create immunity for high officials in RS who have never yet been successfully prosecuted by the entity level courts. (6)

Dodik backed down over the referendum (for which no date was ever set) in May 2011 after talks with Catherine Ashton, the EU foreign policy chief. Despite backing down on the question of the referendum, many consider that Dodik came out of this incident victorious, having succeeded in making his point without incurring any sanctions, and without having been forced to change his position or lost the right to call such referendums. (7)

This call for a referendum can be considered the highlight of continued attacks by Dodik on a unified Bosnia, who insists that less central government and a confederate model would be better (8). The claim made by Dodik and other nationalists from all sides is that every reform and move away from ethnically/entity aligned institutions is an attack on the Dayton Accords, despite the fact that these provided a constitution that was to be a starting point for Bosnian government, in the anticipation of subsequent reform.

Federation: Ethnic representation as the only legitimate form of representation

As with the national level government, the crisis in the Federation centred on achieving an agreement between different political parties on who would govern. In the Federation the crisis had two facets: that of the Croat nationalist parties blocking the formation of government, and the question of the place of non-nationalist candidates in a system designed guaranteeing government positions to the ‘constituent peoples’ of Bosnia.

The two largest parties in Federation after the elections were the SDP and SDA, who formed an alliance with some of the smaller Bosnian-Croat parties in order to form the Federation government. Due to their inability to come to an agreement with the SDP bloc, the two main nationalist Bosnian-Croat parties, the Croatian Democratic Union of Bosnia and Herzegovina (HDZ) and the Croatian Democratic Union 1990 (HDZ 1990) were not included in the election of President and Vice President for the Federation. Their exclusion was a result of the HDZ and HDZ-1990, majoritarian in four of the ten Federation cantons, attempting to block the formation of a Federation government that did not include them; they did this by not choosing their delegates for the House of the Peoples before the legal deadline. President and Vice President were therefore elected without HDZ and HDZ-1990, challenged by them, and the choice declared illegal by the Central Electoral Commission (CEC) in March 2011 (9). This decision of the CEC was then suspended by the High Representative (10) until the decision of the Constitutional Court, at which point the HDZ and HDZ-1990 withdrew their complaint and instead declared the formation of a separate Croat National Assembly with the support of Dodik and other Bosnian–Serb nationalists (11).

As with Dodik and his referendum, the HDZ coalition here is challenging the current form of the Bosnian State, whilst staying clear of making challenge that would result in sanctions from the OHR – they call for a third Croat entity within Bosnia, but have to date created an assembly that does not (they claim) violate the constitution of the Federation (12) - a move that would normally lead to sanctions and removal of officials by the High Representative.

The calls for a third Croat entity are justified by the electoral support for the SDP and the inter-ethnic vote that brought Željko Komšić into power as the Bosnian-Croat member of the tripartite presidency. As the SDP is a non-nationalist party, and received a large share of the entity level vote, Komšić has been deemed to be (by nationalist Bosnian-Croats), elected by Bosniaks. There is no way to be sure how each nationality votes, but this claim is based on the number of votes gained by Komšić and the SDP (13) compared to the relative population of the different national groups (the Bosniaks are a majority in the Federation, as well as the whole country). The argument of the HDZ and HDZ-1990 is that a candidate elected in this way cannot represent the interests of the Bosnian-Croat population, and a third, Croat entity would ensure that only the Bosnian-Croat population elected the Bosnian-Croat president.

This same argument was also used in the formation in the national level government, where the SNSD and HDZ blocked the candidature for Prime Minister of Slavo Kukić of the SDP. The Bosnian-Croats were claiming this seat, but did not recognise Kukić, despite his nationality, as a legitimate candidate due to his membership of SDP. What this essentially means is that the SNSD, HDZ, HDZ 1990 and other Bosnian-Serb and –Croat interests are able to ensure that candidates for Serb or Croat positions in government can only come from their own or other nationalist parties. In the same vein the SDP, due to their share of the vote, attempted to take the chair of the presidency for the duration of the government mandate, but nationalist elements insist on the principle of rotation – a principle that is not written into any part of the constitution.

Is the Bosnian system truly democratic?

This highlights the contradiction in the Bosnian system between being ostensibly democratic, but with ethnically based limits. The conclusion drawn by the nationalist extremes of all flavours is that some one who is not a nationalist cannot adequately represent their co-nationals – the assumption here being that national interests will inevitably clash, so a non-national stance cannot provide adequate representation. It can be argued that a Croat president elected by Bosniaks cannot properly represent Croats, but only if one sees the world along exclusively national lines. If we reject the assumption that the interests of each national group are mutually exclusive it is much harder to argue that a President elected as a representative of a non-nationalist party will not properly represent a part of his constituency because of their nationality. However in Bosnia today it is the former logic that still holds sway.

During the political wrangling around the formation of government a proportional system was suggested. As the country has a Bosniak majority none of the parties from the other two ‘constituent peoples’ are prepared to accept this solution, as it would effectively break their guaranteed access to government positions that the current system offers. Dodik vigorously denounced this idea as a ‘violation’ of Dayton and asked ‘What will happen if the Muslims decide to vote en masse for those who justify the attacks on the American Embassy?” (15) As well as providing an example of the vitriolic language routinely used by nationalists in Bosnia, this statement is ironic coming from a politician who is also involved in blocking the SDP candidates as a result of their having been elected by Bosniaks.

The question of who can legitimately represent which parts of the Bosnian population comes into even sharper focus when we consider the December 2009 ruling of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Sejdić-Finci vs. Bosnia-Herzegovina that aspects of Bosnia’s constitution that limit certain posts to certain ethnicities violate the rights of minorities, and therefore rendering it illegal under European Law. Bosnia is home to many minorities who as they are not ‘constituent peoples’ have no guaranteed representative, and also cannot obtain certain political positions, for example no Jew or Rom could ever be President as these seats are reserved for the ‘constituent peoples’ of the country. It is interesting to note that this tripartite presidency, bearing in mind that it is supposed to protect the interests of the main national groups of Bosnia, simultaneously excludes certain sections of the national groups from electing ‘their’ representative. For example, as the Serbian president is elected by RS an Bosnian-Croat or Bosniak resident in RS cannot vote for the candidates that are supposed to protect their interests, and we have already seen how inter-ethnic voting in the Federation can be problematic.

Bell tower of the medieval Church of St Luke’s

Another negative consequences of the current constitution is that as government positions are inevitably (as the government formed on the 28th December 2011 has borne out) shared out on an ethnic basis rather than due to experience or competence, this principle damages the effective functioning of Bosnia at all levels. This compounds the problem that jobs are attributed through contacts rather than through open recruitment, for example it is a known fact in Banja Luka that you can obtain an administrative position within the government structures with relative ease if you are Muslim (the minority in the area) due to the need to fulfil ethnic quotas.

The parliamentary commission created to reform the constitution following the December 2009 ruling has deliberately failed to meet the 30th November 2011 deadline for this set by the European Court of Human Rights. (16)

Predictable end to the crisis

After the initially positive impression from the election results, which seemed to indicate a shift in the electorate towards more moderate politics and the possibility of a move away from nationalist government, the new Bosnian government was a disappointing repetition of previous government, with the compromise being to split the ministries between the three ‘constituent peoples’. This decision has been criticized as a solution that did not need fifteen months to create. (17)

Out of the ten ministerial portfolios in the new cabinet, four have gone to the ‘Bosniak’ coalition of SDP-SDA, three to SNSD and SDS and three to HDZ and HDZ-1990 (18). The alliance of the SDP within this government has been criticized as damaging their non-ethnic stance, and lowering the confidence of their electorate. (19)

If we look back at the political wrangling that filled the 15 months leading up to this compromise, the conclusion that suggests itself as to why this government took so long to create is that the intervening crisis allowed the nationalist parties to flex their political muscle in the face of reforms designed to centralise the country, and stir up the nationalist feeling and fears that have so far guaranteed their total capture of the political sphere.

What possible escape from the grip of nationalist politics?

This government of the ‘constituent peoples’ dominated by political bargaining and threats does not seem equipped to deal with the challenges ahead for Bosnia, especially if we take into account the 15 months taken for this first step. The kind of consociationalist model that exists in Bosnia is designed in order to guarantee representation and autonomy as part of a whole, but this presupposes the desire to move forwards as a whole. In Bosnia the system is used to increase polarisation between populations and to capture rather than share power, and has allowed the nationalist parties to squabble over influence and power at the expense of functional government and timely decision making to the service of the population. There is however no current risk of a return to widespread violence as ethnic tension is mostly contained within the political sphere, but the situation is one of stagnation. However immediate obstacles for the government are steps towards the EU, which include constitutional reform and the first population census since 1991 – potentially explosive in a country where nationality is central to politics. So whilst the situation is stable, it is as yet impossible to definitively rule out the possibility of violence at some point in the future.

Nationality is so central to politics that the traditional appellations of ‘left’ and ‘right’ in politics have no meaning in Bosnia, as no party uses its economic or social policies as a political platform (20). This has a tendency to exclude those who do not espouse nationalist views from the political sphere – for those young people in Bosnia who do not wish to follow nationalist ideologies an interest in politics is seen as something bad, as for them politics equates directly to nationalism. In Western Europe young people are encouraged to vote, and young voter apathy is seen as negative and a sign of the failure of the political class. Seen from Bosnia the same figures appear as positive, with disinterest in politics being interpreted as disinterest in nationalism (21). Even where there is an active interest in moving the political system forwards the domination of politics by nationalist rhetoric rather than policy choice gives little space to the discontented to act for change. This is compounded by fear of those who hold political power – widespread corruption paralyses the whole country and holds the employment market to ransom. At all levels of public office and beyond personal relations and party affiliation control jobs, therefore to make a political stand is to risk loosing employment, and not to be able to find it again.

Young people seeking change often turn to non-governmental organisations in an attempt to create change and involvement in their community that is not afforded to them through the political system, and this is expressed through trying to gain resources for young people or cultural manifestations. The younger generation does not remember Tito’s Yugoslavia, most have a family history of displacement and loss from the recent conflicts in the region, and faced with the long history of conflicts in the Balkans cannot imagine how transform their society, and many simply seek to leave the country.

Bosnia has too long been ruled from the outside, through donors and the OHR, which despite bringing much needed investment to the country have also contributed to making it dependent and allowing nationalists from across the board to play with fire, safe in the knowledge that the OHR will be there to pull them back before they cross the line. Added to this is the post-socialist context, with no history or culture of functional democracy in the region.

Looking at this picture of Bosnia, the best perspectives for change still appear to come from outside – the influence of Europe to push constitutional reform, but this can only be successful if the responsibility for these changes is taken within Bosnia. As the picture drawn here has shown, this change unlikely to come from the political sphere where moderate politics is kept out by shifting alliances between the dominant national parties. Therefore the best hope of change comes from the population, who due to their status as a post-war and post-socialist state are still learning how to make democracy work for them, and how civil society can impact on politics. Democratic elections in themselves cannot provide an avenue for change within this system, but the existence of the democratic system does mean that the population can demand government accountability directly through protest and direct action, signs of which have recently appeared in RS (22), though it is to early to say how this will develop and what impact it will have.

However the state of governance and democracy are not the only problems faced by the country – the question of what it is to be Bosnian, and therefore to function as a country is one that is far from being answered. There is as yet no consensus on the events of the past, let alone how to move forwards from them, and constructive answers to these questions will not be able to emerge in a political arena dominated by nationalist identities. Though there are many who reject the dominance of nationalism, there is little prospect for them to build an alternative without the public arena to do so. This is a problem both due to the political system and the entity system: the political split between the RS and Federation entities is also reflected socially and in civil society – this is not a deliberate choice by the population but as people follow different school systems, interact with separate governments, and have different newspapers and television channels it is very hard to have a whole picture of the country, and for civil society to act as a whole.

Second world war monument Mrakovica, Kozara National Park

Key to creating change in Bosnia is for a shift in the political landscape away from nationalism. With the situation as it is now, elections are essentially asking the population the same question with pre-decided answers over and over again; in order for the answer to be able to change, the question needs also be different. As Europe creeps closer to the borders of Bosnia the population is getting a clearer and closer view of what they are missing out on, and the frustration that this creates has every possibility of acting as a trigger for change, however how this change is expressed is hard to predict. The responsibility of those inside Bosnia and in the international community at this juncture is to ensure that this frustration is channelled into constructive action and positive change – putting pressure on the political class to become accountable to the population for its actions and learning to use the tools that democracy affords to the population, and not into a further instalment of Balkan conflict.