Bosnia & Herzegovina is heading for a general election on October 2 with little or no change in the political landscape in the past four years. The main nationalist parties representing Bosnia’s three main ethnic groups are expected to retain their leading positions, with expectations for reforms fading away once again.
Election day, when Bosnians will vote for all key positions in the country — at both entity and state level — takes place amid the Russian war in Ukraine, which has further divided Bosnia and raised fears of possible escalation of conflict in the Balkan state.
There are three main nationalist parties in the country, one for each of the three constituent peoples — the Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims), Serbs and Croats.
The Party of Democratic Action (SDA), led by Bakir Izetbegovic, dominates the political scene among Bosniaks. The party’s leader has close ties with Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. It was set up by Izetbegovic’s father, Alija, in 1990.
For Bosnia’s Serbs, one party has dominated the political scene for decades, President Miload Dodik’s Alliance of Independent Social Democrats (SNSD). The party also dates back to the 1990s and has become increasingly nationalistic. For years it has been threatening that Bosnia’s Serb entity, Republika Srpska, will secede from Bosnia. This threat has been followed with increasing attention by the international community since the start of the Russian war in Ukraine. There are fears that Dodik, a loyal ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, could spark a military conflict in Bosnia if ordered to do so by Moscow.
Meanwhile, the Croatian Democratic Union of Bosnia and Herzegovina (HDZ BiH) led by Dragan Covic has warm ties with the ruling party in Croatia — Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic’s HDZ. Over the years, this party has also often played the ethnic card, seeking the establishment of third, Croat, entity, as well as more powers for the Croats living in the Federation.
The repeated election of nationalist politicians, coupled with the country’s complex and multi-layered power-sharing system, has held back reforms in Bosnia and stymied efforts to move towards EU candidate status. Little change is expected after the October 2 elections.
Secessionist plans on the table
Dodik, a high-profile and controversial politician, is currently member of the state-level tripartite presidency but is now running for president of the Serb entity. He plans to switch places with his right hand woman, Republika Srpska’s President Zeljka Cvijanovic, who will run for the state-level presidency.
Their SNSD has benefitted from a weak and divided opposition to stay in power in Republika Srpska almost continuously since 1997, either in coalition or alone. It was in opposition only between 2000 and 2006. Since 2006, the SNSD has also controlled the entity’s presidency, though its success at state level has been more patchy.
The strategy employed by Dodik and other SNSD politicians has been to ramp up their nationalistic rhetoric, and promise that Republika Srpska will secede from Bosnia and become part of Serbia. Recently, he said he sees the entity independent and in legal union with Serbia within 30 years.
In the run-up to the vote Dodik even hinted that he could be poisoned in the Bosnian capital Sarajevo, which is located in the Federation.
“I do not drink their water. Even today when I go to Sarajevo I bring a bottle of water,” Dodik told reporters.
His pre-election campaign also included a visit to Moscow earlier in September, where he met with Putin, who personally endorsed his candidacy. This prompted a rebuke from Brussels, but likely played well with Bosnian Serbs, among whom Putin is a popular international figure.
Ahead of Sunday’s vote, Dodik said he was certain that he and Cvijanovic will win without any effort. However, the only poll carried out ahead of the vote, by Faktor Plus, showed that the opposition’s candidate, Jelena Trivic, could beat Dodik in the race to become the next president of Republika Srpska. In the poll, published by N1 news outlet, Trivic, from the Party of Democratic Progress (PDP), has a slim advantage of around 2% ahead of Dodik.
Trivic has gained popularity with her support for the group Justice for David, which was fighting to find out the truth about the death of David Dragicevic. His family has claimed the young man was killed by the police. Trivic is also a loud critic of Dodik and his SNSD. Publicly she has repeatedly said that corruption, crime, economic disaster and the SNSD will destroy Republika Srpska.
On the other hand, Cvijanovic has a huge advantage ahead of the other Serb candidate for the state-level presidency, Mirko Sarovic, the leader of the main opposition Serb Democratic Party (SDS). Sarovic is also a loud critic of Dodik and his party.
The SNSD remains the most powerful party in the entity, according to this poll, which put it on 27% of the vote. It is followed by the SDS with 17.9%, the PDP with 15.1% and the United Party with 5.5%. None of the other parties would pass the threshold to enter the parliament.
Rivals in the Federation
In the Federation the situation has remained complicated due to the unresolved dispute on the Bosniak and Croat members of the tripartite presidency are elected. This overshadowed other policy issues in the run-up to the vote.
SDA leader Bakir Izetbegovic seems to be heading for victory and is poised for a return as the Bosniak member of the state-level presidency, a position he held before the previous general election in 2018. Izetbegovic is competing with Misrad Hadzikadic of the Platform for Progress coalition and Denis Becirovic of the Social Democratic Party (SDS).
The race between the candidates to become the Bosniak member of the state-level presidency has been characterised by failed debates. The latest debate was supposed to be held on TVSA TV channel but was cancelled as Izetbegovic refused to take part, while Becirovic did not answer the invitation.
There was also a comic moment in an earlier debate hosted by the FTV channel, when candidates were asked by the TV host to show their knowledge of English. Hadzikadic is director of the Institute of Complex Systems at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and speaks the language fluently. However, both Izetbegovic and Becirovic demonstrated that their spoken English is rather rusty — despite claiming in their CVs they speak it fluently.
The Croat side has only two candidates for the post: the current member of the presidency, Zeljko Komsic and Bojana Cristo of the Croatian Democratic Union (HDS). After the previous vote in 2018, Komsic’s election was not well accepted by the Croats who claimed he won with the votes of Bosniaks.
For years, the two peoples living in the Federation have been trying to resolve the problem with the election of the Croat member of the presidency, who is currently elected with the votes not only of Croats but also of Bosniaks, which are a majority in the Federation.
In 2016, Bosnian Croat politicians filed a complaint with the constitutional court, arguing that the electoral mechanism to establish the House of Peoples in the Federation violates the constitution. The court partially accepted this appeal and gave Bosnia's state-level parliament six months to fix problematic parts of the election law. The changes have not so far been adopted, but according to some analysts the court’s decision has removed the legal basis for establishing the upper chamber.
In the past months, there was one more attempt to resolve the years-long issue. In June, the lower chamber of the state-level parliament, the House of Peoples, adopted changes to the electoral law, which were proposed by the Bosnian Croat representatives.
According to the draft law, a member of the Bosnian presidency from among Croats would be elected by electors, which would be picked based on who won the most votes in at least three of the five Croat majority cantons — the Herzegovina-Neretva (HNK), Central Bosnia (SBK), West Herzegovina ZHK), Livno and Posavina cantons.
The proposed changes were opposed by Izetbegovic, who said that according to an agreement between almost all political parties in Brussels earlier this month, these changes would have to be made after the October 2 general election.
In an attempt to push forward the process, the international community’s high representative in Bosnia, Christian Schmidt, wanted to use his Bonn powers to impose changes to the electoral law. Schmidt intended to impose amendments that would require the election of Croat or Bosniak MPs from each canton only if at least 3% of its population is from either of these peoples.
This would prevent filling the Croat group in the upper house of parliament with deputies from cantons where the number of Croats is symbolic. On the other hand, it would secure election of Croat representatives from the cantons where the population is predominantly Croat.
However, this sparked a backlash with the Bosniaks claiming the changes would favour the Croats and harm the Bosniaks. Schmidt backed off, imposing only technical changes.
A decision on the electoral system has thus been postponed until after the latest round of elections, after which Bosnia’s newly elected politicians will also have to tackle other long-delayed reforms as well as the pressing economic issues affecting Bosnia and the wider region.