Legalize the Plenums: What Bosnia Can Learn from Bolivia

Are there any precedents that can help conceptualize the situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the problems facing the plenums? Taking Bolivia as an example, Paul Walsh argues that the plenums in Bosnia and Herzegovina, if legally constituted, could create accountability by giving citizens a direct role in policy making.

Plenums: The state fights back

Amid talk of hooligans and drug addicts intent on destroying the state, people being paid to attend the plenums and talk of “foreign plots”, the real social and economic problems confronting citizens in Bosnia have been buried in a fog of spinovanje. The media war that began in early February was launched primarily to plant confusion in the heads of undecided citizens and has, to a large extent, succeeded.

In the media and blogosphere, a veil is being drawn over the plenums as if everything can return to normal (see: “Why Bosnia’s protest movement ran out of steam”). But is the “new normal” the same as the “old normal”? People denied a voice for years started to participate as citizens and found a place to tell their stories. The “raja”, an old word from Ottoman Turkish used to describe an unruly group of people, or a mob, (originally from Arabic رعيّة ra`iya, “subject”) now understand how the media spin political events and how far the regime will go to protect its own interests. Protest slogans such as gladni smo na tri jezika (we are hungry in three languages) also show that social problems do not respect “ethnic” boundaries.

Other analysts have written about the Bosnian plenums over the past few months. What I want to do here is ask a new question: are there any precedents that can help us conceptualize the situation in Bosnia and the problems facing the plenums? Taking Bolivia as an example, I argue that the plenums in Bosnia and Herzegovina, if legally constituted, would create accountability by giving citizens a direct role in policy making.

Plenum at Dom Mladih in Sarajevo (Photo credit: Sarajevo plenum/flickr CC)
Plenum at Dom Mladih in Sarajevo (Photo credit: Sarajevo plenum/flickr CC)

Morales: pay cuts and privatizations

The job of politicians is to serve, not live off of the people. This is what Evo Morales said in December 2005, when he became the first indigenous president of Bolivia. And these weren’t just empty words: In January 2006 he took a pay cut, which brought his salary down to about $1800 a month – approximately 1300 euros.

How does this compare to BiH? Members of the state parliament in Bosnia earn a monthly salary of around 2350 euros. This means that MPs in Bosnia, which according to the World Bank had an economic growth rate of 0.8 percent last year, are paid 1,000 euros more than the president of a country which has registered an average 4.8 percent annual growth rate over the past seven years.

But how did Morales become president in the first place? Morales and his Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) emerged in the political space created by large-scale rebellions against the privatization of the country’s water and gas reserves. In 1999, as part of a consortium with local businesses, the US company Bechtel took over the water supply of the central Bolivian city of Cochabamba, prompting the Water Wars. This privatization was one of the conditions for a World Bank loan and led to spiraling water bills. The contracts even stipulated that local people were not allowed to collect rainwater. As an American documentary from 2002 put it, this was Bechtel “leasing the rain” to the people!

Coca farmers, urban workers, and intellectuals formed a united front to resist the privatization. In addition to a series of mass demonstrations, there were street battles led by groups of young people. These confrontations resulted in countless injuries and the death of 17-year-old Victor Hugo Dazo, who was shot in the face by police. Eventually, the pressure of mass protests forced Bechtel out of Bolivia and returned the water supply to public control.

You may have heard of Bechtel. They built the “Patriotic Highway” from Kosovo to Albania, which cost the government in Prishtina 820 million euros. The former US ambassador to Kosovo, Christopher Dell, lobbied the Prishtina government to sign with Bechtel in 2010, despite misgivings from EU diplomats, the IMF, and local advisors. Christopher Dell recently left the state department and signed up with a well-known transnational company — Bechtel. The Romanian government recently cancelled a contract with Bechtel, with only 52 km of road completed.

The second rebellion was in 2003, and was triggered by the proposed privatization of Bolivia’s gas reserves. Once again, there were mass protests and bloqueos (road blockades), which prompted then president Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada to send in the army to break a blockade of La Paz. In the ensuing confrontation, dozens of protesters were killed. Sanchez de Lozada was forced to flee the country as a result and the political parties in his governing multi-party coalition were tainted by association. The culling of political incumbents, some of whom had ruled for a generation, set the stage for a Morales and MAS victory.

But to truly grasp the changes in Bolivia, you need to go back and look at the process that really transformed governance there: decentralization. For this I turn to Dr. Jean-Paul Faguet and his book Decentralization and Popular Democracy: Governance from Below in Bolivia. (You can watch Dr. Faguet presenting his work at the London School of Economics here).

Devolving power as a strategy

The spring of 1994 ushered in a remarkable political experiment. A national “Law of Popular Participation” created elected municipal governments in Bolivia that were directly accountable to voters. This was accompanied by a vast increase in resource flows from the center to the country’s various regions, meaning that some rural communities received a share of the public purse for the first time. Implementation of the law was made easier by virtue of the fact that reforms were enacted quickly, giving critics little time to initiate an organized obstruction. In fact, it was the government of Sánchez de Lozada and his MNR party that introduced the reforms as part of a strategy to regain the support of rural voters and halt the party’s slow decline.

A workshop by indigenous leaders in Calcha, Bolivia about strengthening municipal democratic processes (Photo credit: Jennifer Hadley)
A workshop by indigenous leaders in Calcha, Bolivia about strengthening municipal democratic processes (Photo credit: Jennifer Hadley)

The four core ideas of the decentralization reforms of 1994 were:

Resource allocation – Municipalities received an increase of funds amounting to 20 percent of national tax revenue.

Responsibility for public services – Ownership of local infrastructure was given to local governments free of charge.

Oversight committees – Oversight committees (OCs) allow local people the opportunity to participate in the policy-making process directly. Composed of representatives of local grassroots organizations, their function is to draft proposals for action and oversee local expenditures. And these committees have real power – they are able to suspend payments of Popular Participation funds if they suspect corruption. Disputes between the oversight committees and local political actors must be resolved by consensus — the central government will not interfere in local arguments.

In effect, the oversight committees function as an accountability mechanism, parallel to existing political arrangements.

Municipalization – This process increased the number of municipalities and brought all of Bolivia’s citizens under the umbrella of local government for the first time.

The results of devolved power in Bolivia

The reforms provoked big changes in spending. There was a clear rise in spending on Education, Health, Social Security and Sanitation. At the same time, there was a massive fall in spending on Production, including Agriculture, Energy and Mining. Infrastructure spending also rose at first, but gradually declined over time. Looking at the expert groups of the Bosnian plenums it’s worth asking: what problems are they trying to solve? These groups work on issues related to veteran’s affairs, culture and sports, labor and social welfare, education and health. Ordinary citizens in both Bolivia and Bosnia clearly share a preoccupation with what experts call “Human Capital Formation” – that is, things that improve people’s lives.

What explains this change in spending patterns in Bolivia? Local governments decided to prioritize different policy areas. The “new normal” meant using the resources available to meet local needs. The reforms also sparked cycles of learning, where municipalities initially worked on simple, popular projects such as building schools. Then, once they gained organizational knowledge and experience, they took on more challenging projects, such as improving the transport infrastructure.

According to Faguet’s research, this shift in investment was also driven largely by Bolivia’s poorer areas. Some of these regions received no funding from central government prior to the changes, as resources were often distributed according to political expediency, patronage networks or economic priorities (e.g. areas involved in the mining sector). Investment in education alone allowed for real change, with the level of illiteracy falling from 32 percent in 1987 to 15 percent in 2007.

Naturally, there were also failures. Some municipalities were corrupt before the reforms were implemented, and remained so afterwards. The key factor in determining the success of decentralization was the interaction between civic groups, the government, and firms at a local level. In some areas, oversight committees or local representatives were corrupted by officials, resulting in poor governance. But even in the worst cases, decentralization provided a road map towards better governance. The decentralization reforms were transparent; local groups knew what they were entitled to and they started to demand it from their local representatives. Accountability was created and built into the system itself.

The decentralization reforms constructed a framework whereby political actors, civic groups and private sector firms could craft the best policies for their localities. Or as Faguet calls it, “governance from below”.

What does this have to do with the plenums and Bosnia?

Plenum (Photo credit: Ena Bavčić/flickr CC)
Sarajevo plenum (Photo credit: Ena Bavčić/flickr CC)

The power of the oversight committees is important. These committees are protected by law, and they’re a permanent feature of the Bolivian local government. They also have authority. Why can’t the plenums in Bosnia be given the same status? Plenums already function as de facto oversight committees, and if they were given legal status two important problems would be solved.

First, the divisive question of whether to form a political party to win elections would be taken off the table. Forming a political party seems an attractive idea because people presume that winning elections is the only route to change. But this is simplistic. Legally constituted plenums would not gain political power but would gain political influence as a legitimate, representative body.

Second, the long-term status of the plenums would be resolved. This would give plenum activists and supporters the space to focus on key, strategic goals. Energy would not be lost by constantly defending and sustaining the plenums. Of course, this gives rise to the charge of “selling out”. But as Bolivia proves, this doesn’t have to be the case. Oversight committees in Bolivia bridge the gap between local needs and local policy-making, and haven’t lost touch with the grassroots.

Plenums could also be the silver bullet for existing political parties. Many countries have problems enacting difficult reforms. And they often use the EU as a scapegoat when pushing through difficult policies. This allows the governing parties or coalition to absolve itself of responsibility, and allow much-needed reforms to go through. It’s hard to imagine how the countries of Eastern Europe would have implemented tough economic and social reforms without using the EU in this way.

My final premise rests on the failure of elections as accountability mechanisms. The failure of elections in producing political change must be attributed at least in part to the international community. Early post-war elections in 1996 administered by the international community only served to cement the dominance of the pre-war nationalist parties and subsequent elections have done little to reshape the political landscape, resulting in an increasing paralysis of government and related institutions. The failure of multiple attempts at constitutional reform, the inability to pass the Sejdic-Finci reforms as well as continuing economic and social decline have led to vociferous criticism of the Bosnian political class at all levels. (This speech delivered by Šeherzada Delić being a shining example).

Therefore, if accountability mechanisms do not exist or are broken, they need to be created.

Dayton – what is it good for?

Bosnia is already decentralized. Like its predecessor Yugoslavia, it is one of the most decentralized states in the world. What would be the point of any changes to the Dayton system?

Dayton embodies all of the disadvantages of decentralization but none of the benefits — quite an achievement! The governance structure created by Dayton is neither accountable, responsive to citizens nor economically efficient. What is more, by devolving power to corrupt national elites Dayton creates perverse incentives. Which politician or political party benefiting from the (supposedly temporary) Dayton agreement would vote for its dissolution or its reform? As the old saying goes, “why would the turkeys vote for Christmas?”

As the existing accountability mechanisms of elections and parliamentary politics are broken, there is clearly a need for new institutions to counter ongoing political and economic stagnation. One proposal would be to legalize the plenums as an oversight and accountability mechanism. This would provide an institutional shock to a broken body politic.

Sarajevo plenum (Photo credit: Radio Sarajevo)
Sarajevo plenum (Photo credit: Radio Sarajevo)

‘Koji za – Koji protiv’ — Who is for, who is against?

On March 12 in Sarajevo, I experienced a plenum first hand. At Dom Mladih, security guards checked to make sure I wasn’t carrying any knives or guns. I had neither. After reaching the hall I stepped down into the plenum through a cloud of cigarette smoke. Beside me were war veterans, pensioners, and young people chattering away, all waiting for the plenum to begin. People sat with friends, colleagues or neighbours, or just alone. I was one of the few foreigners trying with some difficulty to translate the demands of the plenum projected onto the walls. It all felt exciting, yet tense.

Vedad Pašić then gives a barnstorming speech on the achievements of the Tuzla plenum and talks about the power of one thing: solidarnost. Volunteers passed out leaflets printed with the demands of the plenum, the vote was introduced, and then took place – “Koji za, Koji protiv”. A sharp silence descended while people raised their hands to vote: “Za”. Cheers echo round the room; one man even stood up, turned around and thanked the plenum! There and then I saw a space open up with people attempting to solve problems with pragmatism and respect for one another, rather than half-truths and insults. This was inspiring; I don’t want to see the hard work of the plenums destroyed or forgotten.

Just as Socrates was a gadfly to the Athenian authorities, so the plenums “rouse, persuade and reproach”. How can this not be a good thing in a country where unemployment is nearly fifty percent? However, those in power brook no dissent. The ruling elites hope that the plenums are more a moment than a movement, and have put in place a “new normal”. But the subterranean forces that caused the riots are still there and will rise again.

This is why a legally-constituted, citizen-led institution, such as an oversight committee in Bolivia, or a plenum in Bosnia, may be the best antidote against the problems that plague ordinary people. The riots in Bosnia sowed fear among the elites — now it’s time to put accountability into the political system.


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Paul Walsh

Originally from the U.K., Paul spent four years living and working in the Balkan region from 2006 to 2010. He graduated from the Freie Universität Berlin in 2013 with an M.A. in East European Studies, and is interested in decentralization, social movements, elites, and all things South-East European.