Bosnia & Herzegovina: still not looking like a real country

The last time we looked at Bosnia & Herzegovina was back in February, when the country was hit by a wave of protests against official corruption and incompetence. At the time, there were hopes (which I was mostly sceptical about) that this showed the country’s citizens overcoming their deep ethnic differences.

Bosnia & Herzegovina went to the polls last Sunday, and on the evidence of the results, hopes of a new era of inter-ethnic co-operation will remain unfulfilled.

To understand the results, it’s necessary to know something about Bosnia & Herzegovina’s peculiar constitutional structure. There was rather a good explanation of it by Alberto Nardelli last week in the Guardian (although it neglects to mention that all of the country’s institutions are subject to the overriding power of an unelected official, the High Representative – an Austrian diplomat accountable to the international community).

Basically, the structure freezes in place the compromise settlement that ended a civil war in 1995. Three ethnic groups are recognised – Bosniaks (Muslims), Croats (Roman Catholics) and Serbs (Eastern Orthodox) – and two sub-national entities, or provinces: Republika Srpska for the Serbs and the Federation of Bosnia & Herzegovina for the other two.

The provinces control most governmental functions; the national government is mostly limited to fiscal and monetary policy, defence and foreign affairs. There’s also a three-person presidency, one for each ethnic group. As Nardelli puts it, “the divisions of the past may have been frozen, but their complexity and scars remain deeply enshrined in how the country’s parliament and government are elected and organised.”

You can find all the election results here, although they’re still preliminary (and of course they’re in Serbo-Croat). They’re a bit of a mixed bag.

The three members of the collective presidency look like being two nationalists and one relative moderate. Incumbent Bakir Izetbegović, from the Bosniak nationalist Party of Democratic Action (SDA), has been narrowly returned for the Bosniak spot, with just under a third of the vote (voting is first-past-the-post), while Dragan Čović, a Croat nationalist who was removed by the High Representative last time he held the job, won a big majority in his community.

The Serb position, however, is looking like a very narrow win to Mladen Ivanić, from the centre-right Party of Democratic Progress, ahead of the more nationalist Željka Cvijanović, who is the current prime minister of Republika Srpska. But the margin is less than 2,000 votes, or 0.3%, with 8.4%  of polling places still to be processed, so that’s really too close to call.

In any case, control of the provincial governments is probably more important than the figurehead presidency. Here, popular discontent with the established politicians looks to be denying anyone a majority.

Republika Srpska has a directly elected provincial president, and voters appear to have returned incumbent Milorad Dodik, whose aim is complete independence for the Serb entity. Dodik’s party is nominally social democrat, but has been expelled by the Socialist International for its extreme nationalism. It won only about a third of the vote for the provincial parliament, and the Guardian suggests that “opposition parties may be able to form a ruling coalition if they were able to overcome their differences.”

In the Bosniak/Croat federation, which runs a parliamentary system, the SDA will be the largest party in the provincial parliament, but with only 28% of the vote will be a long way short of a majority. Another four parties have between 10% and 15% – one Croat nationalist and three broadly moderate, mostly Bosniak. Putting together any sort of coherent government there will be a challenge.

Despite the hopes of earlier in the year, there’s a lot of “business as usual” in this result. Bosnia & Herzegovina’s constitutional arrangements make it difficult for any broadly based cross-ethnic movement to get going; the norm is for its institutions to continue to pull in different directions.

If there’s a real sentiment for change and for a movement away from divisive nationalism, it’s going to have to work harder than this to make itself felt.


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