After a year of worker-led protests, popular assemblies, catastrophic floods, and threats to dissolve the state itself, voters in Bosnia-Herzegovina will finally go to the polls on October 12th. Jasmin Mujanovic takes us on a trip through the myriad personalities, parties and prospects involved in the general election — which he argues are being held in an atmosphere of doom and growing discontent.
On October 12th, Bosnia-Herzegovina (BiH) will hold its sixth general election since the signing of the Dayton Peace Accords in 1995. The polls come at the end of arguably the worst four-year period in the country since the war itself. After the 2010 general elections it took sixteen months for a state-level government to be formed, one which collapsed shortly thereafter, anyway. Virtually no legislation has been passed since, no reforms initiated, no steps towards EU membership have been taken. According to one of the main political monitoring organizations in BiH, only 3% of 1,941 promises made at the last elections, by all the leading parties in the country, have been fulfilled to date. This is considerably worse than the last mandate, the authors note, when a whopping 5% of pledges were brought to fruition.
The sense of doom accompanying these elections is palpable; only another temporary rotation in the ruling oligarchy appears possible. Yet in 2013, this apathetic quiet BiH has nurtured an unfortunate reputation for began to dissolve. First came the so-called “Baby Revolution,” as parents demanded the adoption of a new ID law that would allow their newborns to receive basic government documentation, to be registered as citizens in other words. As crowds blockaded the state parliament, the politicians and their burly entourages made their escape through ground floor windows, through faked medical emergencies, and sheer force. The episode revealed a widening chasm between the political class and the citizens.
In February 2014 came the spring. A small worker-led protest in the industrial city of Tuzla grew into a series of country-wide riots that resulted in the sacking and burning of government and party offices, the resignation of several cantonal administrations, and the emergence of a popular assembly movement referred to locally as the plenumi.
Thousands attended the plenums but as police and media pressure grew, organizing and maintaining public energy became difficult. Then came the rains and the floods, the worst in more than a century, as though to mark the end of a year of chaos with a bitter exclamation point.
As entire villages and towns were washed away, the lack of functional state services in BiH once again revealed itself. For all the talk of the Republika Srpska’s [RS] superior comparative administrative capacities, residents of the smaller of BiH’s two primary entities relied on their neighbors in the Federation for the brunt of their emergency relief efforts in the first crucial days. The remaining plenum cells transformed from political to humanitarian associations, launching donation and volunteer drives.
BiH’s international partners pledged millions for reconstruction efforts in the aftermath. That was nearly half a year ago now. A few days ago, the US Embassy in Sarajevo released a scathing analysis by the Mission Director of USAID in BiH, David Barth, and Defense Attaché Col. Scott Miller: “Four months after the initial floods, politicians throughout BiH have no real plans, or even serious ideas, to offer for recovery. Flood victims have seen little to nothing except for empty promises and excuses from their leaders. These same leaders instead quickly apply international assistance to fill their coffers to cover existing budget shortfalls that are the result of their policies, with little directed for flood response. Now they ask for full payment of remaining funds?”
In short, the country is in ruins and as the Economist predicted at the end of last year, the risk of significant social unrest is only growing. So, who is asking for the support of what little remains of the electorate—by some measures, barely 50% of registered voters? In a country of less than four million people, 7,877 candidates will seek to fill 518 posts. There are sixty five parties in twenty four coalitions, with an additional twenty four independent candidates. Even the state-presidency is composed of three-members—a Bosniak, Croat, and Serb (the so-called constitutive peoples)—and yet is a post from which minorities are still constitutionally barred.
It is obviously impossible to review the field as a whole but as with all things in the country, the BiH candidate list is in reality quite top heavy, with few if any newcomers in the bunch. Unfortunately, the most sensible way to divide this confusing mess of political options is exactly as Dayton’s logic operates: ethnically. These institutional arrangements, however, obscure the reality of the Dayton system.
Class, not ethnicity, divides the people of BiH in two; two increasingly opposed and mutually hostile camps: a privileged, oligarchic, political-criminal elite and a dispossessed, traumatized, seething mass of ordinary citizens. When the resentments of the latter towards the former finally boil over, as they began to do earlier this year, no inter-entity boundary line will save the myriad ethnic entrepreneurs of BiH.
Until then, however, I will begin with the individual candidates and then round out each section with a discussion of the parties more broadly, at the entity and state level. I will refrain from the business of prediction, offering instead what I hope to be a basic, albeit critical, primer to the elections.
Cover Photo: Sarajevo, February 2014 (Photo credit: Amer Kajmovic/Oslobodjenje)