The Bosnian Elections
by Djordje Latinovic
1. The Low Turnout Worked Against Democratic Parties
Electoral abstention was this time greater than ever before. All public opinion polls had warned that this would be the case, but the parties did nothing to encourage the voters to come out and vote. In the situation of low turnout, the moderate and mutually divided democratic parties could not compete against the disciplined and authoritarian electoral bodies controlled by the nationalist parties. Apathy, resignation, dismay - combined with the complicated nature of the electoral system, frequent elections (six in the last five years), excessive bureaucracy and the general economic situation - discouraged the voters from voting. Their message to the political elite insensitive to their persistent demands is one of impotent indifference. Also, the Alliance for Change fell apart before the elections, i.e. at the time when it was most necessary for it to appear strong and to send the voters a clear message, despite the errors committed and the failure to keep promises during its period in government.
2. The Responsibility of the International Community
The international community behaves like an official posted on a Sarajevo-Mostar-Banja Luka railway. Ashdown and co. failed to indicate clearly what they expected of the political parties in the future. Some of their actions indeed aided the victory of the nationalist parties in Bosnia-Herzegovina. They tried to appear neutral, which may be welcome when it comes to political parties, but not when it comes to certain values and political solutions regarding Bosnia's future. The strategy of the international community during the elections was of such a nature that it publicly suggested forgiveness for past sins, provided the political parties implemented the OHR’s programme. As a result the Bosnian elections became a competition in servility towards the international community, with its failed policy of maintaining a political stability that need not include democracy and economic development. Since the nationalist parties have a rich wartime and postwar governing past, it is clear that they are more open to the policy of blackmail on part of the international community than the moderate civic parties. They are willing to be more cooperative in order to stay in power and to avoid being charged by the tribunal in The Hague or by the Bosnian courts. It is the international community which changed its attitude to the nationalist parties, with the result that they have won.
3. Bosnia Needs Reform of the Political System
Bosnia urgently needs reform of a political system that favours ethnic divisions and which, under the cloak of democracy and respect for the constitution, allows elected leaders to undermine the very foundations of the state that allows them to be elected in the first place. It is highly necessary to introduce new electoral rules that would prevent the great fragmentation of the political space and the electoral body. At the start of the re-establishment of political pluralism, the international community was guided by the desire to maximize political alternatives to the ruling nationalist parties; but this has returned like a boomerang in the form of a real jungle of political parties and an unworkable political system. The international community should not allow the participation of 57 parties in all-national elections, since they suffocate the political space and deprive the citizens of a choice other than those packaged by the nationalist parties. Until the conditions are created for greater political concentration of parties that endorse European democratic standards and programmes, the people will not have a clear choice when electing their representatives
4. A Defeat for Democracy?
These elections were lost by those who abstained, by the cities, and by those who failed to reach agreement and unite around issues that are important for the country's future. They were won by the countryside and by those who took their agitation to the most distant villages. True, the constitutional changes, Bosnia's entry into the Council of Europe, the implementation of the Constitutional Court decision regarding national constituent status, and democratic changes within the nationalist parties, have created a political framework within which the behaviour of the nationalist parties cannot be as destructive as in 1990. But a reserve should be maintained: the new government, as well as the international community and the democratic opposition, must be carefully watched. All the more so, given that the three nationalist parties undertook their democratic reforms only under the pressure of the international community, which made them remove from their ranks their most extreme elements, rather than by their own will or considered rational decision.
The vicious circle of Bosnian politics can be formulated as follows: nationalist parties will continue to win until the so-called national question has been solved; but the national question cannot be solved while the nationalist parties remain in power. Can Bosnia exit from it? Paddy Ashdown, seeking to justify the victory of the nationalist parties, has referred to the fact that reform governments lost subsequent elections in all the East European countries in transition. Bosnia, however, does not conform to this rule, since its three nationalist parties regularly win elections regardless of reforms and the tempo of change. Bosnia differs from the other countries also in the fact that it is highly multi-cultural, and possesses three nationalist parties which are unable to overcome their past and step into the future. If democratic parties are to win, they must stop trying to be pale copies of the authentically nationalist parties and offer instead a strong pro-European programme. Those who call themselves democrats must show readiness to work together for the sake of the national well-being. Otherwise we shall continue to have a simulation of democracy, with the worst kind of political surrogates offering shoddy wares on the Bosnian political market.
These edited extracts have been translated from an article published in Nezavisne novine (Banja Luka), 19 October 2002