Local elections in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Citizens vote against corruption and nationalism

Criminal ethno-clans have dominated the political scene in Bosnia and Herzegovina for three decades, and the destructive ideologies of the 1990s have never been placed ad acta. Many voters discovered the power of their vote at the local elections, in order to reject the ruling parties in urban centres. In Sarajevo, an alternative block won. The Serbian secessionists surrounding the obstructive member of the BiH Presidency Milorad Dodik suffered a defeat in their stronghold Banja Luka. The voting was accompanied by massive electoral fraud.

The changing face of Ratko Mladic
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Ratko Mladic

The atmosphere was notably depressed: when the Serbian representative in the BiH State Presidency Milorad Dodik commented on the results of the Local Elections, one could notice on him that he did not expect such an outcome. In Banja Luka of all places, the administrative centre of the Serbian dominated Bosnian entity of the Republika Srpska, Dodik´s party Alliance of Independent Social Democrats (SNSD) had to admit its defeat. The 27-year-old opposition politician Draško Stanivuković is the mayor of Banja Luka now. A mistake, Dodik commented – as if the will of the electorate could be measured only by the standards of his party. Immediately he announced sanctions against the rebells in Banja Luka: Dodik threatened to turn off all financing of the city, as well as heating subsidies.

The election result of the young challenger Stanivuković is a remarkable historical turning point, given the intimidation policy of Dodik´s party, which has been brutally oppressing civil society and threatened regularly with secession. After years of Milorad Dodik´s permanent rule, the citizens have opposed one of the biggest provocateurs of Bosnian interior politics. Despite that, Stanivuković is likewise considered a Serb nationalist, who lead his campaign with impudence and strong attacks of the establishment, and now won against the candidate of Dodik´s party with 54 percent of the votes. The SNSD has also lost in Bijeljina, and there will also be changes in the mayor´s office.

The Bosniak Party of Democratic Action (SDA) has suffered historical defeats in the capital Sarajevo. After so many years in power, it lost several mayor positions to a coalition of four parties which ran in order to end the supremacy of the SDA, shaken by corruption scandals. The block of four includes the liberal Naša stranka, an independent alliance, the party People and Justice, founded by breakaway representatives of the SDA, and the Social Democratic Party (SDP). Newspapers headline that election results in Sarajevo were a "debacle" for the SDA, even if party leader Bakir Izetbegović refuses to admit it. Izetbegović explained with little conviction that they had lost Sarajevo, but conquered Bosnia, after all, his party suffered losses elsewhere as well.

Naša stranka advocates multi-ethnicity

The new mayor of Sarajevo Centre Municipality, Srđan Mandić, member of the multiethnic party Naša stranka, stated visibly moved that the victories of the four-party coalition have marked the beginning of a new Bosnia and Herzegovina. That now a Serb can implement a new, liberal and anti-nationalist policy in Sarajevo, which had been besieged and shelled by Serb forces for years, demonstrates that these elections could actually be the introduction into the long expected beginning of a new era. People were no longer judged according to their nationality, but according to their qualities and know-how, President of Naša stranka Predrag Kojović emphasised, likewise a Serb, himself exposed to hate speech all too frequent.

On the other hand, some commentators react rather carefully: there has not been an extensive trend of rejecting the nationalists so far. For instance, the nationalist Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ BiH) has managed to defend its position in places dominated by Croats. The aggressive politics of their leader Dragan Čović, aimed against the present peace order established in Dayton, the constantly used “victim narrative” and the glorification of the war crimes committed during the Bosnian war ("Herceg-Bosna") is still well received by the Croats, the smallest group of the constituent peoples.

Still, the election results from last weekend still provide a ray of hope: the first steps have been made on the long way towards normalisation, which might end the monolithic ethno-blocks that have been operating autocratically for decades. Motivated by the fall of the bastions in Banja Luka and Sarajevo, now it seems conceivable that alternative forces might get new impetus at the next general elections in two years.

For decades, the Bosniak SDA, the Croatian HDZ and the Serbian SNSD have deployed nationalism purposefully as an instrument to breed further discord between the ethnic groups. They kept people in a system of fear deliberately, in which the true problems of the post-war country are mainly ignored. Especially the air pollution in many Bosnian cities with world-wide leading values requires new, sustainable solutions.

Corruption during the pandemic

The coronavirus pandemic, which in Bosnia is characterised by a relatively large number of cases and fatalities above average, has showed to people across the country that hollow national paroles and cementing conflicts along ethnic dividing lines cannot solve the true challenges of the country. Fact is that in the Croatian-Bosniak Federation, respirators were purchased from China for several million euros under the aegis of the SDA, that are not working at all, which only proved once more that widespread corruption is capable of endangering human lives. As so many times before, this did not result in any consequences. The involved Prime Minister of the Federation, Fadil Novalić, is still in his position. The “respirators affair”, that even made international headlines, has permanently shaken the confidence of the citizens in the established parties.

With the criminally motivated elites, Bosnia's reform course has almost completely come to a halt during the last years, regional countries like Albania and North Macedonia have pulled ahead of Bosnia, which now is the worst-performing country on the way to EU integration. The educational and health systems hardly meet European standards. The parties HDZ BiH, SNSD and SDA obstruct the necessary steps again and again, especially when it comes to the reform of the politically controlled justice system. Corrupt clans know that in a functioning state, they would be brought to justice in one moment.

Therefore, the nationalist parties took brutal actions during the electoral campaign, in order to defend their dominant position. There were numerous attacks on candidates from other ethnic groups, and there were threats and electoral frauds across the whole country.

According to media reports, the Director of the independent election monitoring “Pod lupom” (''Under the magnifying glass’') Dario Jovanović said that tens of thousands of voters were unable to exercise their right to vote. The Central Electoral Commission alone received over 5.000 complaints by voters claiming that their identity had been stolen. The OSCE Mission in Bosnia and Herzegovina invited the Central Electoral Commission and the public prosecutor's office to take the necessary measures immediately.

Already before the polling stations had been opened, electoral observers warned of far-reaching manipulation and electoral fraud. This time, the party clans had been particularly active in the run-up to the elections: The Central Electoral Commission did not allow even 28.000 alleged voters to vote – a record, as was judged by the Commission. Fictitious identities were also created abroad, in Serbia among others.

Struggle for interpretational sovereignty in Srebrenica

Srebrenica, where Serbian troops murdered over 8.000 Muslim boys and men in 1995, was flooded with cars with Serbian number plates at the time the elections were held. The initiative My address Srebrenica now demands this to be explained. According to the accusations of the Bosniaks, non-residents of Srebrenica obtained false documents and thus participated in the elections illegally. As Serbs in Banja Luka and Belgrade deny the committed genocide, the little town in the east of the country has a special meaning for the struggle of the ideologists. The interpretational sovereignty over the worst crimes committed in Europe since the end of the Second World War is supposed to be retained. The old, and probably the new mayor alike, a Serb from the SNSD party, denies the genocide due to lack of evidence, which is his grotesque justification.

How nervous the main parties were before the voting, was also demonstrated by the fact that the portraits of candidates were present almost everywhere: on posters, packages of handkerchiefs and chocolate, which were thrown in mailboxes, even on pill packages, reminding patients to whom they should give their vote.

Most people in Bosnia and Herzegovina live in poverty. Retirees can sometimes only survive because they are looking for something to eat in garbage containers, while the profiteers of the system rush through the streets in SUVs and continue to use state resources for themselves and their followers. The state budget represents a cash cow for a political class, for which the highest principle is to enrich themselves.

So, enough reasons for the dissatisfaction that has accumulated. And thus the High Representative Valentin Inzko, who is watching over the fragile peace in the country, has invited the population to exercise its right to vote. According to Inzko, one's vote is comparable to the “Bonn powers" on a small scale, those powers by which the international representative can overthrow obstructive politicians. Inzko has used this comparison in order to appeal to his own responsibility, as many in the country are again requesting the international community to intervene.

Criminalised electoral process

Inzko´s appeal did not come by chance: many Bosnians have lost their faith in democratic changes a long time ago, not only because many believe that the voting process is not independent. The whole electoral process truly is hopelessly criminalised, analyst Tanja Topić judges.

Especially the employees of the public administration and state companies in Bosnia are being blackmailed to vote for the ruling class, as otherwise they would lose their jobs. As the private sector is almost not developed at all, jobs in the administration and government organisations are becoming increasingly popular. Taxi drivers in Sarajevo are threatened to lose their licence if they do not support the SDA. Voters sometimes have to document their ballot by making a picture of it with their mobile phones. In the country, small amounts and “election presents” such as flour and sugar are offered in order to secure votes for the parties.

By signing the Dayton Peace Agreement, which will see its 25th anniversary in December, the war events between the Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks were ended. The Republika Srpska was founded as one of two entities (parts of the country) – de facto a result of the merciless extermination policy of the Serbian President Slobodan Milošević and the leader of the Bosnian Serbs Radovan Karadžić. Their policy of violence against anything non-Serbian culminated in the Srebrenica genocide in May 1995. By a war within a war, the Croats for their part tried to separate certain areas from Bosnia and to establish the criminal parastate Herceg-Bosna. Crimes committed in that context were sentenced with  111 years of prison in front of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in Den Haag.

Serbian and Croatian destruction ideologies continue to have an effect

Today, a quarter of a century later, those destruction ideologies remain powerful. Nowhere is this more obvious than in Mostar. In the city on the Neretva River, the SDA and HDZ BiH have prevented elections for twelve years, in order to divide the city in spheres of influence and to simultaneously retain control of the budget without any parliamentary corrective measures. The separation of Bosniaks and Croats in Mostar is political calculation in order to secure the status quo and the power of nationalist parties. There are young people who have never been on the other side of the divided city, who grow up without any contact with the other ethnic group.

Now, after more than a decade, finally local elections are going to be held here as well, according to an agreement between the SDA and the HDZ BiH. However, the citizens of Mostar will vote on 20 December, because the elections were agreed during the summer, and there was too little time to prepare the electoral process.

However, by the two-party agreement, the free vote shares were reduced due to the complicated election procedure in Mostar and the influence of the two nationalist blocks has been strengthened – de facto precisely the opposite of what the European Commission formulated as a request for the country, in order to fulfil standards on the way to future EU integrations.

Astonishingly, the controversial agreements between party leaders Dragan Čović and Bakir Izetbegović were accompanied by the EU Delegation in Bosnia, and since then, they have been celebrated as a great success. However, there is broad resistance in Mostar: According to the widespread criticism, the EU is talking to the mafia, and not to the citizens who are campaigning for reforms and democratisation. The agreement has set questionable double standards which could not exist in any EU country. Thus, EU representatives have contributed so that nationalists can further expand their power in Mostar.