Bosnia and Herzegovina: Elections, but to what end?

Bosnia and Herzegovina: Elections, but to what end?

Bosnia and Herzegovina held Presidential and Parliamentary elections on 7 October 2018. An ongoing dispute about the electoral law has left the country unable to legally form a government. Despite this, election results indicate the current state of affairs in the country.

In the 2018 elections, the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina chose the Bosniak, Serb, and Croat members of the three-person Presidency and the members of the lower house, the House of Representatives. The results show that the votes for the House of Representatives went along ethnic lines, as is usual, and the balance between the parties remained similar, with no party gaining or losing more than two seats.

Bosnia and Herzegovina is composed of 2 main ‘entities’; the Bosniak and Croat dominated Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (hereafter referred to as the Federation), and the Serb-dominated Republika Srpska. In the Federation, the Bosniak Party of Democratic Action (SDA) and the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), which is also in power in Croatia, remained the largest parties. In the Serb-dominated Republika Srpska, the ruling Alliance of Independent Social Democrats (SNSD) won the most votes. The Serb and Bosniak candidates for the Presidency echoed the House of Representatives’ results, with the SDA and SNSD candidates winning. The Croatian candidate bucked the trend with the moderate Democratic Front’s (DF) candidate beating the more nationalist HDZ candidate.

None of these political parties will be able to form a government soon due to a quarrel about the electoral law in the Federation. In 2016, the Constitutional Court decided that the way that candidates are elected undermines equality of representation between the three main nationalities, rendering it unconstitutional. The law has not yet been replaced, meaning that any government formed would be constitutionally illegitimate.

An election with no outcome

The Bosnian governmental system is set up to ensure that three main nationalities are all equally represented, this is the rationale behind institutions like the three-person Presidency. The 2016 Constitutional Court case argued that the way politicians are elected in the Federation violates this principle.

The case highlighted that each of the 10 cantons that constitute the Federation are obliged to put forward at least one Bosniak, Serb, and Croat candidate in elections regardless of how many people from each ethnic group live in the canton. For example, a canton where Bosniaks make up 90% of the population still has to elect a Croat candidate. Everyone in the canton, regardless of nationality, can vote for that representative. So, a Croat candidate, mandated to represent Croats could theoretically gain office based on mostly Bosniak votes. This anomaly has become a particularly sensitive issue as the number of Croats in Bosnia and Herzegovina is declining, due to a low birth rate and high migration, meaning that over time Bosniak votes could become more influential in selecting Croat politicians.

HDZ, which is the ruling party in Croatia and the largest Bosnian Croat party in the House of Representatives, has called for the law to be changed where Bosniaks cannot vote for Croat candidates. Bosniak MPs have accused HDZ of pushing this change in order to widen the divide between Bosniak and Croats. They further suggested it is part of a strategy to push for a third, purely Croat entity that is separate from the Federation.

The Bosnian national parliament has not been able to agree on a new electoral law for the Federation. This has left the country without a method of forming a government that represents the constitutional imperative of equal representation of amongst Bosniaks, Croats, and Serbs.

Implications of the results

The lack of a national government is not likely to induce serious changes. The extremely devolved governing system into two main entities, with one of them further split into cantons, means the absence of a national government is not as problematic as it would be in more centralised states. The country previously survived 15 months without a government in 2011.

Incumbent parties won the most votes in the elections for the House of Representatives, so the political status quo was largely confirmed. Nationalist parties retained most of the seats in the House of Representatives, demonstrating the enduring importance of ethnicity in Bosnian politics.

The surprise victory of the more moderate DF Croat Presidential candidate Željko Komšić, who promotes coexistence between Croats and Bosniaks, has immediately been interpreted in ethnic terms by HDZ. They have accused Čović of winning with the help of Bosniak votes, thereby tapping into the same issue that resulted in the Federation’s electoral law being declared unconstitutional. Protests have even been staged against the result. By casting Komšić’s victory as an ethnic issue, HDZ hopes to stir up Croatian nationalism and gain more support amongst Bosnian Croats.

The parties elected to the House of Representatives do not work well together because they disagree on fundamental issues, including the legitimacy of the state itself. SNSD has long talked about an independent Republika Srpska, while the idea of greater administrative separation between Bosniaks and Croats has been proposed recently. The prospects of such changes being agreed upon between the various parties are minuscule. They are pipe dreams for now, especially because the USA and EU are highly unlikely to sanction a fundamental restructuring of the country after many years of investment in the current system. The dysfunctional relationship between the political parties means that major social and political reforms are unlikely to occur before the next election.

What next?

The staging of an election without the corresponding formation of a national government is a fitting summation of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s current state. The exercise of elections has become a façade covering the cracks of fundamental structural problems. Nationalist parties do not agree on the state’s legitimacy and instead fight each other on ethnically-charged issues, such as the potential dismemberment of the country. The mandated equal representation of nationalities that downed the Federation’s electoral law has also led to the consolidation of ethnically-based parties. These parties cannot compromise with one another, meaning that a new electoral law cannot be agreed upon. Just as the election lacks an underlying legal basis, the state lacks the foundation of cooperation amongst the three main ethnic groups needed for it to function efficiently.

The electoral law dispute has added to a growing pile of outstanding problems with the Bosnian constitution, from the 9-year-old Sejdić and Finci case on the rights of citizens who are not members of the three main ethnic groups, to more prosaic considerations like the words to the national anthem. These issues have and will be argued over at the national level by the elected representatives of Bosniaks, Croats, and Serbs, who do not often agree. There is little prospect of these entrenched ethnic divisions being overcome, as even the historic protests and citizen assemblies of 2014 did not bring new parties to power, or affect any change on the ruling parties’ ethnicity-driven politics.

It is difficult to see Bosnia and Herzegovina progressing unless the major parties move away from ethnic politics. They need to work together to solve the country’s many issues. The lack of political compromise has led to the basic, necessary institution of a national government having an uncertain legal basis. This problem looks set to continue for the foreseeable future. Without efficient governing bodies, the country will be unable to compete effectively with its neighbours in the medium to long-term.

Categories: Europe, Politics

About Author

Luke Bacigalupo

Luke Bacigalupo is a political analyst currently based in Belgrade, Serbia. He holds degrees in South Eastern European Studies and Modern History from the University of Belgrade and the University of Oxford, respectively. He has previously worked as a political reporter at the Office of the EU Special Representative in Kosovo and at UNDP in Serbia.