A few brief thoughts on yesterday’s municipal elections in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH).
The results are more or less in line with what was expected: Dodik’s unconstitutional referendum gambit paid off, as the SNSD utterly routed the SDS-led opposition bloc in the RS; the SDA, while actually losing a number of key municipalities, nevertheless remained the biggest vote-getter in the Federation; the left-civic vote, fractured along at least four parties, failed to compete in a meaningful sense against the dominant nationalist blocs.
More alarmingly, these were the most irregular elections in nearly a decade, and possibly since 1996—the first post-war polls. A brawl in Stolac completely suspended voting in the town, while similarly ugly scenes played out in Bihać, Livno, and a handful of other locations both yesterday and in days leading up to the election. Independent observers noted over a hundred “critical incidents,” which is to say, voter fraud. Tellingly, the key architects of the violence and fraud were the main nationalist blocs. This is a reflection of the increasing dissolution of law and order and parliamentary procedure in BiH, and the willingness of the SDA, SNSD, and HDZ to use all means at their disposal to remain in power.
Srebrenica has its first Serb mayor in more than a decade. Yesterday evening’s scenes—drunken youths waving flags, hurling insults and slurs, and the town divided by cordons of police—suggests that we’re in for renewed tensions in BiH’s “open wound.” Expect Dodik and the SNSD to increasingly make the town more and more inhospitable to the large returnee population, as I have previously projected.
Once again, there was no voting in Mostar, one of the largest municipalities in the country. Taken together with the events in Stolac, it’s becoming ever clearer that the SDA and HDZ remain patently authoritarian movements, willing to outright suspend democratic processes, with a preference for resolving debates with fists and explosives rather than ballots.
Speaking of which, the post-election press conferences by Bakir Izetbegović and Milorad Dodik were ominous, indeed. Both men attacked the assembled journalists, spoke venomously of analysts and observers, and dismissed municipalities where they fared poorly as irrelevant backwaters. They spoke more as leaders of militias than democratic blocs.
On the whole, last night did nothing to improve the worsening political climate in the country and the utter chaos of the whole event is another indictment of the international community’s complete abandonment of meaningful democratization projects and processes in BiH, but also the region.
Looking ahead to 2018:
a. It is imperative that the SDP, Democratic Front, Naša Stranka, and Citizen Alliance form a single left bloc. They can delay formal (re)unification but continuing to split the crucial civic vote in BiH is irresponsible and self-sabotaging.
b. The RS opposition has to articulate a meaningful alternative program to the SNSD. Their soft nationalist, “anyone but Dodik” approach has failed. Mladen Bosić and Mladen Ivanić both need to clear the way for young, new leaders in Banja Luka. If they don’t, the SNSD will destroy what little remains of the “Alliance for Change” in 2018—even if Dodik’s party (like the SDA) is hardly the machine “the Baja” would like to have us believe. Still, the nationalists have the more disciplined base, and control the public apparatus after decades of rule, and thus will continue to win any “toss up” vote; challengers need landslides in BiH, and landslides require real campaigns and real programs.
c. After the referendum and these botched polls, alarm bells should be blaring in Brussels and Washington. The country turned a key corner yesterday—not towards the EU, but towards outright illiberal, managed democracy. Democratic processes and norms were always weak in BiH but yesterday was a dark day, even by these standards. At the very least, a statement should be released indicating the conduct of yesterday’s vote was disconcerting and not at all becoming of a (supposedly) soon to be EU candidate state. If Brussels et al cannot manage even this, BiH is in truly dire straits.