Op-ed: The Gentlemen in the Boxing Ring

A very smart person once told me that politics should be a gentleman’s sport, played in gloves. Yes, everyone throws punches here and there in the form of political deals and bargains, but the gloves never come off. No punches below the belt. No backstabbing.

I’d try to convince you that the aforementioned person is both sane and actively taking part in Balkan politics, but you probably wouldn’t believe me. If you have ever witnessed a day in between campaigns, or an hour during a campaign, you’d know that politics is a dirty sport around here. As dirty as it gets.

So imagine my disbelief the first time a credible person spoke of a small party in the battlefield of politics in the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, suitably named Naša Stranka (Our Party). A party located at the center-left of the political spectrum, composed of progressive, well-educated, liberal minds with concrete policies and solutions for everyday problems. A party that doesn’t promise jobs in the public sector for its members. A party that doesn’t employ empathy as a driving force in its campaigns. A party that doesn’t trade quality of policies for quantity of votes. Sounds foolish, right?

Founded in 2008 by prominent BiH film director Danis Tanović (of No Man’s Land fame), Naša Stranka now has two cycles of local elections and two cycles of general elections under its belt. While initially considered to be small and insignificant on the entity or even state level, Naša Stranka has seen a steady growth in votes – with the exception of the absolute failure in the general elections of 2010, when the party ran in coalition with the New Socialist Party of Zdravko Krsmanović, resulting in two seats in the Canton of Sarajevo and one in the House of Peoples in the Parliament of the Federation. However, if local and general elections in BiH require different strategies, Naša Stranka hasn’t seen a fall in support since the general elections of 2014, when they got their first directly elected member in the House of Representatives and three representatives in the Assembly of the Canton of Sarajevo.

However, the rare quality of Naša Stranka is not the fact that it has survived tumultuous times, but its approach to democratic decision-making, internal as well as external. In 2010, then-president Bojan Bajić submitted his own resignation after an electoral disappointment, an uncommon move in Balkan politics in general. In the Assembly of the Canton of Sarajevo, where Naša Stranka’s representatives have been most consistently present, they often demand amendments to laws, offer voting advice and eventually actually vote in favor, against, or abstain. The profiles of the key individuals are more clearly defined to the public than for any other party. The party’s vice-president Sabina Ćudić focuses on issues such as women workers’ rights and childcare policies, Secretary General Albin Zuhrić on economic policies and current MP Dennis Gratz on human rights violations. Naša Stranka has launched an initiative – Inicijativa50% – with the aim of making women 50% of the municipal councilors in the next elections. After the last general elections, when prominent female MPs from major parties failed to obtain a mandate (or even a spot on the list), the initiative is a move in the right direction, at the right time.

The last of the series of exciting events in the hot political summer in Sarajevo has been the proposed Law on Work (Zakon o Radu). Claimed by the government, headed by SDA (Party of Democratic Action) and HDZ BiH (Croatian Democratic Community BiH), to be a necessary step in the reform agenda adopted by all levels of governance, the law itself was hastily written, without the necessary consultation process and with a number of ridiculous clauses. For the governing parties, it was a piece of legislature that upheld the demands of employers and cozied up to the frequently-mentioned European Union. For the opposition, led by DF (Democratic Front) and SDP (Social-Democratic Party), it was a chance to show that the government lacks the necessary majority of 50 votes in the House of Representatives and to ask for a new coalition. Moreover, 6,000 protesters from around the country, supposedly organized by the trade unions, gathered in front of the Parliament of the Federation, asking for the law to be withdrawn altogether as it wasn’t compliant with the unions’ demands.

Naša Stranka proposed ten amendments to the law. The government accepted four to the Law on Work and one in the General Collective Agreement of BiH, with an additional promise. Prime Minister Novalić accepted the proposal to decrease the number of possible extra work hours from 10 to 8 and scrapping altogether the possibility for an extra 10 hours of work “on a voluntary basis, if demanded by the employer.” The second amendment secures an additional month for unions negotiating new collective agreements. The third amendment foresees an increase in the minimal number of days of holiday for underage workers and the fourth prolongs the pause required between two agreements from 15 to 60 days. The amendment to the General Collective Agreement secured the obligatory requalification of workers injured on the workplace if the injury causes some sort of disability and no appropriate alternative position is offered. The promise, finally, comes in the form of creating a federal fund for paying maternity leaves, a long-standing struggle of vice-president Ćudić. Currently, each canton decides on the size of maternity leave payments, causing large disparities between the private and public sector.

Naša Stranka’s Dennis Gratz was the 50th vote in the House of Representatives in favor of the Law on Work, causing an outrage within the opposition. Many took to social media, and some even to traditional media, showing politics’ worst facet. Words were not spared, and insults were abundant. It was no longer a question of how important these amendments are for the law, and what else is problematic, but it was about who’s going to come up with the worst description of Naša Stranka’s strategy, members or ideas. And in this juicy cocktail, spins such as saying that all amendments were refused by the government, without saying that Naša Stranka’s amendments were incorporated prior to the session, are not a problem at all. It was the outrage on social media accounts such as Emir Suljagić’s Twitter profile that definitely crossed the line of acceptable manners in any space and time.

Suljagić is one of the prominent young political hopes of the Democratic Front, having run for the position of Bosniak member of the tripartite Presidency of BiH in the past election cycle. Having lived through and survived the fall of Srebrenica, he has a convenient profile for center-right Bosniak voters.

For more than 48 hours, Suljagić pinged the Twitter profiles of Naša Stranka, Danis Tanović, Dennis Gratz and Pedja Kojović calling them “Bakir’s bitches” and “Bakir’s poodles,” referring to SDA’s president Bakir Izetbegović. He has stated that for Naša Stranka, it would have been best if he had been killed in Srebrenica, failing to explain the connection with the current law. One of the tweets claims that “[o]ne has to objectively be a hardcore dilettante, a complete moron or a sell-out to be the 50th vote in favor of the law.” And this is only a small selection.

Suljagić’s example created fallout across the social media sphere. Some were disgusted, but some followed his example, tackling even the fact that Gratz has changed his name. One would think that attacks on the personal choices of an individual would be off the table for any self-respecting leftist. Think again.

It is possible that the Democratic Front had a sound strategy in forming a new majority and overthrowing the current government. One could solidly develop the argument that Naša Stranka’s amendments do little good to a law that is detrimental overall. For the sake of argument, let’s even say that this is the end of workers’ rights as we know them. None of it justifies the base level at which the public discourse is taking place.

The question posed now is: Is it possible to be a gentleman in a muddy boxing ring? Can Naša Stranka really survive and thrive in a climate that is hostile to good manners, let alone policies based on compromise and agreements? Can Naša Stranka negotiate its way to a position of an influential player on the political scene, without succumbing to a vocabulary acceptable to a football hooligan?

I certainly hope so.


Cover photo credit: TV1.ba

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Ivana Jordanovska

Ivana is a graduate of the Institute for Political Science of Paris, with a focus on transatlantic relations. She is also a member of the Executive Board of the Young European Federalists (JEF Europe), and believes justice is more important than ethnic belonging.