Tracing the evolution of Bosnia’s Party of Democratic Action (SDA), from its roots in risk-taking and sacrifice to a political option largely devoid of ideology save for the securing of hereditary power for established elites.
The Qur’an says, “Indeed, Allah will not change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves.” It was in 1939, in the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, that the organization “Young Muslims” was established with the goal of gathering Muslim intellectuals and students, with the quote above as their motto. The organization itself was quickly banned by the authorities yet it continued on as humanitarian organization and an ideological stronghold with cells throughout Bosnia, such as the youth wing “El Hidaje” and the Association of Muslim Ulema. After the Second World War, the newly established Federal People’s Republic of Yugoslavia banned various ethnically and religiously affiliated organizations, among them the Young Muslims.
This was followed by numerous arrests and prosecutions of members of the group, a process that began in 1946 and reached its peak in 1949, in terms of death and life-long prison sentences. One of the targeted activists was Alija Izetbegović, later to become the first President of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina, who was arrested and sentenced to three years in prison on suspicion of publishing one of the organization’s magazines. In all, the campaign against the group was one of the first post-war ideological conflicts within Yugoslavia, meant to root out, in the eyes of the newly established communist-party led government, the vestiges of the previous ostensibly ethno-religiously marked regime. The growth of the movement was not entirely inhibited, however.
After his release from jail, Izetbegović continued to take an active role within the organization. In the early 1970s, Izetbegović published his first book, The Islamic Declaration, and by the beginning of 1980s he had released a second, Islam between East and West. The positions that he expounded in these works became the inspiration for political movements throughout the Muslim world, and laid down a framework for an alternative political stance for the Bosnian Muslim community in Yugoslavia, primarily as a religious rather than an ethnic or national movement.
Izetbegović was once again persecuted for his opinions and writings, and sentenced along with other members of the Young Muslims during the infamous “Sarajevo Process” in 1983—a controversial Communist-led legal process launched against some of Bosnia’s leading Muslim intellectuals and their associates. After serving five years of his 14-year sentence, Izetbegović was released in 1988. Two years later, on May 26th 1990, together with a number of other Muslim intellectuals and activists, Izetbegović founded the Party of Democratic Action (SDA). The party itself was not exclusively populated by members of the Young Muslims, and included a wider range of intellectuals, political activists, and even former members of the Communist Party. However, it remained, ideologically and in its leadership personally, connected to the Muslim political dissidents and their anti-Communist perspectives.
On November 18th, 1990, during the first multi-party elections in Bosnia and Herzegovina the SDA won the largest mandate in the new parliament, nearly a third of the total number of votes, followed by the Serb Democratic Party (SDS) and Croat Democratic Union (HDZ). The three parties formed an absolute majority within the now democratically-constituted Assembly of the Socialist Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina. In the collective presidency, Fikret Abdić and Alija Izetbegović (both from SDA) filled two seats reserved for the Muslim community, out of a total of seven seats, and due to an inter-party political settlement, Izetbegović took the position of Chairman of the Presidency.
Although the broad coalition of the three nationalist parties garnered significant popular support from the three major ethnic communities in Bosnia, the parties failed to govern effectively. At the state level, Yugoslavia was already facing collapse, with armed conflicts breaking out in Slovenia and Croatia in 1991, and a number of incidents also occurring on the territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina. In the autumn of 1991, the first congress of the SDA took place and party president Izetbegović noted in his address the possibility that the turmoil might soon engulf Bosnia as a whole.
In December 1991, members of the Assembly from the HDZ and SDA sought a resolution for the independence of Bosnia and Herzegovina, while the SDS boycotted the session. Soon after, on the January 9th, 1992, a coalition of delegates led by the SDS left the official parliamentary institutions, and declared a “Republic of Serb People in Bosnia and Herzegovina”, and called for a boycott of the forthcoming independence referendum by all members of the Serb community in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The referendum nevertheless went ahead on February 29th and March1st, 1992, with a 64 percent turnout; 99 percent voted for independence. By April, Bosnia and Herzegovina was recognized as a sovereign country, yet bloodshed due to ”different perspectives on the country’s future” seemed increasingly inevitable as Belgrade-backed paramilitaries seized large swathes of the country’s east.
Despite its leading role in organizing the military defense of the country’s territorial integrity, the SDA was often (and rightfully) criticized for undermining citizens and the multi-ethnic character of the Army of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The contours of this debate emerged at the core of the war and post-war conflict not only within the Bosniak-Muslim community but also the broader Bosnian community, regardless of ethnicity, who remained committed to the idea of an independent, democratic, and multi-ethnic Bosnia and Herzegovina. In the first post-war elections in 1996, Haris Silajdžić, the former SDA-affiliated foreign minister, founded his own party, the Party for Bosnia and Herzegovina, and emerged as the SDA’s first significant intra-Bosniak challenger.
Izetbegović stepped down from the party and state presidency in October 2000 for health reasons and for the first time the SDA lost its majority position within the Bosniak community. In the third post-war elections, the Alliance for Democratic Change, led by the Social Democrats, won the majority in the new Bosniak and Croat dominated Federation entity. During the third SDA congress in 2001, the political party redefined its position from a nationalist to a broadly center-right affiliation, relabeling themselves a “people’s party of the political center, open to all citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina.”
The newly elected SDA leader, Sulejman Tihić was endorsed by Alija Izetbegović and the party was back in power a year later, after the general elections in autumn 2002. Tihić became a member of the Presidency of BiH and in next four years it seemed that the SDA, but also the country as a whole, was moving in a more progressive direction. This reformist push was, of course, heavily boosted by the strong interventionism of the international community through the Office of High Representative, but also by the poor economic situation in the country, especially in Republika Srpska entity, which made Serb political leaders more open to compromise. Izetbegović died in 2003, as Sulejman Tihić stayed on at the helm after the fourth party congress in 2005. The party shortly thereafter became a member of the European Peoples Party (EPP), the main center-right bloc in the European Parliament, a decision that seemed to strengthen the SDA’s own reformation. This era of compromise, however, opened the door for opportunistic, nationalist hardliners: primarily Haris Silajdžić and Milorad Dodik and his party, the Alliance of Independent Social Democrats (SNSD) in the Republika Srpska. After the April Package of constitutional amendments, a reform package that would have streamlined the country’s institutional arrangements, was narrowly defeated by a populist push from Silajdžić, with the support of a smattering of SDA-hardliners, Tihić’s pragmatism lost favor.
By 2009 a clear split was evident in the SDA: one wing was led by the reformist Tihić, another by Alija’s own son, Bakir Izetbegović. Once Bakir was elected to the state presidency in 2010, however, the tide turned definitively in his favor. The SDA increasingly began to affiliate itself directly with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s, AK Party. The AK Party was recognized by Izetbegović as a model of what SDA should become—an Islamist party with a modernist bent. Due to poor health, Tihić was soon pushed out, enabling Izetbegović to take full control. Tihić died at the peak of the election campaign in 2014 and Izetbegović won a second mandate as a member of state presidency.
However, he was now facing challenges in establishing relations with crucial players with strong political legitimacy. These difficulties were clearly seen in his relations not only with SDA leaders from the Republika Srpska, but also from the Bosnian Krajina, where many find themselves marginalized. At the sixth party congress, which took place on May 26th, Bakir Izetbegović won overwhelming support as president, while Adil Osmanović, formerly seen as part of the Tihić faction, won the place of deputy-president, marking the achievement of a sort of “great peace” within the party. Yet in reality this did not reflect the bigger picture. Sadik Ahmetović and Ramiz Salkić, both SDA members from RS, did not get enough votes for the positions of vice-presidents. The elected vice-presidents were Šefik Džaferović, Denis Zvizdić, Asim Sarajlić, Edin Mušić, Šemsudin Dedić, Safet Softić, Edin Ramić, and Mirsad Kukić. Šemsudin Dedić, Minister of Agriculture, was chosen as the representative from Bosnian Krajina over Senad Šepić, who was left out despite possessing strong legitimacy and popularity, as evidenced in the general elections. Šepić, seen as one of the leaders of the SDA in Bosnian Krajina, is a respected fellow in the party’s international relations, especially those with pro-western political alliances and groups.
It should be noted that even more candidates for the position of vice-president were left out in pre-selection, which is within the discretion of the newly-elected president of the party. Senad Bratić, also from RS, was not one of the 14 candidates who Izetbegović shortlisted out of the 20 confirmed by the Main Board of the SDA. There had already been similar outcomes, led by Amir Zukić and Asim Sarajlić, in elections for the party’s youth and women branch leaders in the weeks before the Congress.
Ultimately, Izetbegović emerged as the winner, despite a few “political casualties”, such as the non-selection of Halid Genjac for the position of vice-president. The lack of loyalty between pre-congress allies weakened opposition within the party, given the “every man for himself” fight at the peak of voting sessions.
However, it should be noted that the key opponent in the run for the party president, Šemsudin Mehmedović, won 159 votes out of 754 delegates, which might not be huge but still sends a strong message to Izetbegović. In an time of heavy turbulence within Bosnian politics, a number of strong political parties in the Bosniak constituency have presented themselves as political alternatives, yet have failed to push the SDA from power. They have often switched easily from haughty pre-election discourse to a post-election willingness to collaborate with the “enemy”. In this sense, the opening quote from the Qur’an, used as the motto of the Young Muslims, can be used to rethink not only the capacity for political change within the Bosniak ethnic community, but also the monolithic ideological positions of the main Croat and Serb political parties.
One may or may not agree with the somewhat radical stance of the SDA and its predecessors, who were seen as enemies of the previous regime. However, it is evident that at some point in history, the movement’s members made sacrifices and were punished for their political beliefs. Within the party discourse, this “sacrifice”, with “Young Muslims” as ideological predecessor, has been transferred through the generations as a birthright and source of privileges, and we can assume that their ideological message is a mere shadow of its fights for personal gains, interests and power. When we take a look at 25 years of SDA, from its beginnings through present day, the party has moved philosophically from the Muslim Brotherhood (bearing in mind that the same literature was the source of “Young Muslims”) in its foundations, to the center-right perspective of the present day Christian Democrats in EPP during its reform period of the first decade of the 21st century. Yet at this moment, it seems that the only ideological position of the SDA is its friendly relations with the AK Party and the personal respect with which Erdogan christens Alija Izetbegovic’s lifework, which is reflected in his open support for Junior.
This will provide a safe environment to further their leadership. But what will the SDA offer in the ideological sense in the years to come, to address the community’s challenges? Will it transcend the mere securing of power for established elites? And how will the people change what is in themselves?