25th Sep 2023


What actually happened at the 'most complicated election in the world'?

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On a bright morning in the city of Mostar, the historic capital of Hercegovina, voters gradually appear at the Croatian Lodge. It is known for a bridge dividing the Bosniak and Croat parts of the city which was destroyed in the war and subsequently rebuilt in peace. But the peace is an uneasy one, and the road to EU membership, which 3 out of 4 Bosnians want, is strewn with obstacles as Bosnians navigate their post-Dayton agreement political system, regularly called the most complicated in the world.

Though Sunday's election saw a new reformist Bosniak President from a multi-ethnic party elected, and the moderate Croat President keep his seat, giving Bosnia its first anti-nationalist executive majority. But the most notable political changes came as the votes were still being counted. The High Representative (HR) Christian Schmidt, Bosnia's highest political authority appointed by the international community, pushed through a reform to the hyper complex electoral laws that have divided analysts, activists and the international community.

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Critics slam the changes as "apartheid," "appeasement" and even "an illiberal putsch" that would give minority Croat and Serb nationalist parties the HDZ and SNSD disproportionate power, while supporters see it as a way to protect the rights guaranteed by the Dayton peace agreement and prevent the disenfranchisement of ethnic minorities.

Tensions rising

The country of Bosnia & Herzegovina is divided into two political entities, the Serb-dominated Republika Srpska and the mixed Bosniak-Croat Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Secessionist tensions between the Serbs and others were at the root of the brutal 1992-1995 war, and the pro-Putin President of the Republika Srpska Milorad Dodik's comments praising the illegal Russian annexations of Ukrainian territory have made Bosnians realise how fragile their peace is.

In recent years tensions within the Federation between Bosniaks and Croats have come to a fore too, with no government able to be formed between 2018 and 2022 due to obstruction by the Croat nationalist HDZ party, whose coalition block received just 9.8% nationally in that election. This also hampered the Covid-19 vaccine roll out.

Each of the three major ethnic groups elects their own President, but at the root of current tensions Bosnian Croats charge that the non-Croats majority in the Federation, mostly ethnic Bosniaks who make up about 50% of Bosnia's voters, have used a loophole in the electoral system to once again vote in Zeljko Komsic, a highly-decorated veteran of the Bosnian war who served in the Bosnian army, as the Croat President.

Residents of the Bosniak-Croat Federation are both able to freely choose whether to vote for the Croat or Bosniak candidate for President. After the experiences of ethnic cleansing, the country does not require voters to put their ethnicity in their ID or to show any ethnic identification at the ballot box, though Serb voters overwhelmingly live in the territorially separate Republika Srpska.

As Croats only make up 15% of the country's population, their votes are easily outnumbered by the Bosniak majority, who are predominantly Muslim. Electoral data from heavily Croat settlements show them voting for HDZ candidates at rates of up to 99.46%, but Zeljko Komsic, the moderate multi-ethnic candidate, has won the position every time apart from one.

The loophole

The current system leads to what Croat-American legal scholar Luka Misetic describes as political disenfranchisement of the Croat minority. "The foundation of the Dayton agreement was that no one would be an ethnic minority, everyone will share power equally. All three groups are guaranteed participation in government.

In 2006, the Bosniak majority discover there is a loophole in the Dayton system — itself created by the High Representative in 2002 — that allows Bosniak voters to cross over and vote for the Croatian candidate for Presidency. The Croat electorate no longer had anyone representing them. This triggered the obstruction by the HDZ."

Misetic thinks that because the HDZ are being given part of what they want, this will create an incentive to allow representatives of all communities to get around the table and negotiate, and for the HDZ to stop its obstructionism.

"We are fed up"

Speaking to EUobserver outside the Mostar Croatian lodge, 19-year-old student Petra Dragovic was angry, summing up how many Croat voters feel. "We are really fed up about how the Croatians in Bosnia have been treated, ever since the war. We cannot elect our own President. We can sort out this stuff with the EU after we sort out that."

At the heart of the argument about Christian Schmidt's reforms is a disagreement about what the job of the High Representative is — whether to strictly protect the Dayton Agreement's multi-ethnic settlement where each ethnic group is represented, or whether to turn Bosnia into a "European style" liberal democracy where no ethnic group has special protections. As the country's supreme political authority, who has a right to veto any law, this is an important disagreement.

For Dario, a 36-year-old Croat energy sector worker who prefers moderate candidates, trading explicit political representation for Croats for a functioning government is a sacrifice he would be willing to make. "Other countries also co-exist with minority groups — I think there is too much emphasis on that and not on the economic development on the country. I hope there will be economically better times. If the majority of the country wants a path to the EU, for myself it would be a very good solution, it would be economically much better for this country."

So what happened?

While the reforms by the Office of the High Representative (OHR) do not directly affect the election of the Croat President, they increased the overall number of members in the parliamentary caucuses of the constituent peoples. If these changes had not been made, it looks likely that multi-ethnic candidates would have stopped the Croat nationalist block's ability to invoke their "vital national interest" veto.

The system currently gives each of the Federation's ten cantons a representative for both the Bosniak and Croats, despite the fact that some cantons are made up of 94% Bosniaks or 96% Croats. One proposed reform would redistribute representatives in a way when the community makes up less than 3% of the population in an area, their representative would be given to areas with a larger proportion of the population coming from one ethnic group. This means that about half of Croat delegates would come from HDZ strongholds, giving them a permanent stranglehold on the system.

A permanently segregated state

Bosnian political scientist Jasmun Mujanovic calls these reforms "an unprecedented moment for the institution and Bosnian society more generally." Though he points out that many are not against the HR using their Bonn powers to override decisions blocked by minority nationalist parties, such as when the last HR decided to make genocide denial illegal, overriding Serb nationalists. However, he says "this is the first time we have ever had the HR use the Bonn powers against the will of the majority of the Bosnian population and very large numbers of western officials coming out and explicitly against the decision."

"These people want Bosnia to remain a permanently segregated state" says Mujanovic, while he and many other Bosnians would prefer the country to become a more typical European-style liberal democracy. "I think it is morally abhorrent in 21st century Europe to maintain a system that asks people to ethnically segregate and I think it should be dismantled."

He points out that the Dayton agreement was a peace deal between three warring factions which had exit clauses and which recognises the primacy of European laws, and not a permanent recipe for government.

In 2009, a case by a Jewish and a Roma resident of Sarajevo was brought to the European Court of Human Right, and Bosnia's ethnic-based electoral system was ruled to infringe on minority rights, as people who do not identify as members of the three legally protected ethnic groups are not able to be elected, which he sees as a case for moving away from the ethnically segregated Dayton agreement.

Meanwhile, as the debate rages on, the hopes of Rijalda Dziho, a volunteer standing outside the Bosniak SDA's office in Mostar, are more simple. "I don't want people to lose trust in this country and in these elections. We have to overcome our differences, we have to unite and all have one goal: that's joining the EU."

Author bio

James Jackson is a Berlin-based freelance journalist covering news, politics and culture in Central and Eastern Europe. Previously a video journalist and documentary maker with DW News, he has written for outlets such as Time Magazine, the BBC, FT, Open Democracy and others.

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