Momentum is growing for a crunch reform of Bosnia’s broken electoral system, but how and at what cost?

Srećko Latal

March 11, 2021

The stakes are high, as are tensions, as Bosnia embarks on long-overdue effort to reform its broken and corrupt electoral system.


“Changes to the election law must be an imperative for everyone,” Borjana Kristo, speaker of Bosnia’s House of Representatives from the main Bosnian Croat party, the Croat democratic
Union, HDZ, told the Fena news agency at the weekend. “There are no alternatives.”


Bosnian Croat leader Dragan Covic of the HDZ and Bosnian Serb Milorad Dodik of the Alliance of Independent Social Democrats, SNSD, have repeatedly warned that their parties will boycott and block Bosnia’s next parliamentary election in 2022 if the electoral system is not reformed by then.


But even with such political blackmail, a senior Bosnian official told BIRN that the scale of the vote fraud witnessed in local elections at the end of last year has rendered future elections
“pointless” without a thorough overhaul.


Bosnia’s complex political, administrative and legal system makes any such reform extremely
difficult, underscored by the fact that the United States and European Union have tried and failed at least four times since 2006 at moments of much greater Western engagement in the country and the region.


Part of the problem lays in the fact that the issue electoral reform is caught between two separate court rulings: one, by the European Court of Human Rights, ECHR, demanding an end to ethnic discrimination, and the other by Bosnia’s Constitutional Court stressing that representatives of one constituent people – Bosniaks, Serbs or Croats – should not be elected
by the votes of other ethnic groups.


Local, regional and international actors have divergent, often even opposing ideas about which
of the two directions any reform should follow.


The other part of the problem lays in Bosnia’s broken political system, in which most if not all political parties – supported by their affiliated media and intellectuals – are not interesting in seeking compromise, but approach electoral reform as another stage for their endless power struggles and zero-sum games.

A third issue is the increasingly antagonistic positions adopted by key external actors, chiefly neighbouring Croatia, the US, EU and Russia.


Taken together, these internal and external elements make reform of Bosnia’s electoral system a ‘mission impossible’, especially given some local leaders insist it should be wrapped by the summer before election campaigns get underway at the end of the year.


“Reform of Bosnia’s election system is one of the country’s biggest challenges since the Dayton Agreement as it opens critical questions about relations amongst its three constitutive peoples and the very nature of the Bosnia political system,” the Prague Security Studies Institute said in a policy paper published on March 8.

High stakes


The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the full depth of the Bosnian crisis, one that has bankrupted the country’s administrative, political and judicial systems, as well as its public services.


The mainly Bosniak and Croat Federation, one of two entities in Bosnia, is still to form a new government after elections in 2018, leaving it in the hands of an outgoing administration tainted by corruption scandals.

The other entity, the predominantly Serb-populated Republika Srpska, is unwilling to give up powers to the state level, even at the cost of blocking a new funding programme from the International Monetary Fund or delaying the acquisition of vaccines against the coronavirus.


The public health system across the country has effectively collapsed due to the pandemic, and Bosnia remains one of the last countries in the world to get hold of a COVID-19 vaccine.

 

The political crisis deepened even further at the end of 2020, before, during and after the country’s local elections. In addition to increased nationalist and populist rhetoric, the elections brought numerous claims of fraud, most of which the state court rejected.

But the scale of electoral manipulation, and the failure of country’s prosecution and judiciary to address it, has only further underscored that electoral reform is long overdue.


“It is pointless to have any further elections in the country without a proper reform of the electoral system,” a senior Bosnian official told BIRN. “The current system simply does not
reflect the opinions of voters anymore.”


Covic and Dodik have threatened to block the next election anyway, if the system is not changed.


Sources from their parties say such warnings should be taken seriously, and that the consequences could be dramatic.


Compromise will not come easily, however, given the fact that the local ethno-political blocs are far apart when it comes to how the electoral system should be changed.

Bosnian Croat and Serb parties want only changes to the election law that would prevent Bosniaks from electing representatives of other ethnic groups.


Most Bosniak parties, however, insist on root and branch changes to the constitution and election legislation that would lead to a more centralised state, which is strongly rejected by all Bosnian Croat and Serb parties.


The ruling Bosniak SDA party is in no rush, as long as it continues to pull the strings at the Central Election Commission, CIK, and the state court, officials say.

External actors enter fray


Given the almost complete political standstill among local actors on all fronts, the outcome of
the reform will likely depend more on external actors – especially the US and EU. The HDZ’s Covic recently admitted as much.


After meeting Dodik and their Bosniak counterpart, Bakir Izetbegovic of the SDA, Covic told reporters: “If it was not for them (the US and EU ambassadors in Bosnia) we wouldn’t even be sitting down with the SDA and talking about the election law.”


Yet even regional and global actors have divergent agendas, interests and perceptions of the scope and direction of a potential electoral reform.


Playing a key role is Croatia, which has blindly supported Covic and the HDZ for years.


Croatia’s apparent ignorance of Bosnia’s political reality has enabled Covic to game this process, to the detriment of the Croat position in Bosnia and hardening Bosniak positions
towards Zagreb as well as the Bosnian Croats.


In Serbia, meanwhile, President Aleksandar Vucic has proved skillful in exploiting Bosnia’s divisions and crises to strengthen his own position in the region and his relations with the West.


Croatian and Bosnian Croat leaders have recently found a surprising new ally in their efforts in
Bosnia – Russia, which is increasingly determined not to allow any further reforms that would
bring Bosnia closer to joining the EU and NATO.

On the other side of the equation, there are the US and EU, which as of late have grown more vocal in their resolve to help Bosnia and the rest of the Balkans move on.


But both Washington and Brussels face their own internal and external challenges, and yet to fully restore the trust and cooperation that was torn up under the Trump presidency. As a result, despite their apparent goodwill, the Balkans is far from the top of their respective agendas, Western diplomats say.


The EU finds itself in a particularly tight spot in recent days, facing criticism from a variety of local and international experts who seem to be trying to force new US President Joe Biden to get involved in Bosnia sooner and more forcefully than Washington currently seems willing to.

Which way out?


Finding a good political, ethnic, legal and technical solution for Bosnia’s electoral quandary has proved so difficult because of the questions it raises about the very nature of Bosnia’s political and electoral system, and, by extension, the nature of relations between its main three ethnic groups.


More concretely, Bosnia’s electoral reform will primarily determine the fate of the alliance between Bosniak and Bosnian Croat political parties, rooted in the wartime Washington
Agreement of 1994.


This alliance, once considered key to the subsequent Dayton peace agreement that ended Bosnia’s 1992-95 war, is now in tatters, destroyed by the short-sighted politics of Bosniak and Bosnian Croat ruling and opposition parties alike.

Many local and international officials and experts are convinced that Bosnia cannot survive – at  least in its current form – without an urgent revival of the Washington Agreement.


From the legal perspective, the reform is caught between two almost opposing poles. On the one hand, there are six ECHR rulings that require Bosnia’s lawmakers to remove ethnic discrimination from the country’s constitution.


On the other hand, Bosnia’s Constitutional Court in a 2016 ruling called upon them to change the election law to ensure that political representatives of one constituent people are not elected by the votes of other ethnic groups.


The next question is whether Bosnian society at present offers a real choice between ethnic and civic models, or whether this is yet another ruse used in Bosnia’s all-out political and media war.

Most officials and experts privately agree that the only hope for Bosnia’s electoral reform is finding a proper balance between these almost opposing poles, as well as among different
ethnic, political and technical solutions.


Yet failure should not be an option, as it would put at risk the fate of the country and the stability of the region and Europe.


“Another botched reform could lead to boycott and/or blockade of the 2022 elections,” the PSSI policy paper concludes. “Unless given proper attention by internal and external actors, this could finally push Bosnia and Herzegovina towards becoming a truly failed state and its eventual disintegration – a path that could lead to new social violence or ethnic conflict.”