Bosnia goes to the polls as ethnic rivalry continues

Bakir Izetbegovic, right, member of Bosnia's tripartite Presidency waits to vote at a polling station in Sarajevo. Picture: Getty
Bakir Izetbegovic, right, member of Bosnia's tripartite Presidency waits to vote at a polling station in Sarajevo. Picture: Getty
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BOSNIANS voted for national, regional and local representatives yesterday in elections dominated by issues of identity and statehood that remain unresolved after almost 20 years of peace, and with scant prospect of any genuine change.

Many Bosnians had hoped that civil unrest in February might generate enough momentum to oust the political elite – widely seen as corrupt and incapable of reforming a complex system of ethnic power-sharing that ended a 1992-95 war.

However, devastating floods in May drowned out such hopes and, with few new faces on the ballot papers, political analysts predict more of the usual policy paralysis and neglect of the
issues that matter to ordinary

“I didn’t vote for anyone; they’re all the same.

“I just came to cast an empty ballot so they can’t misuse it,” said Sarajevo pensioner Saima Alajbegovic.

Anger over corruption and unemployment was at the heart of the unprecedented popular unrest in February, when protests over factory closures turned violent and spread to several cities.

But calls during the election campaign for greater focus on jobs, red tape and good governance have mostly gone unheeded.

Instead, stark differences between rival ethnic groups over Bosnia’s future were again on prominent display. Bosnia’s Orthodox Christian Serb leaders want to secede, the Catholic Croats want a separate entity within Bosnia and the Muslim Bosniaks still cling to the vision of a strong unified state.

Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik, emboldened by a pro-Russian separatist revolt in eastern Ukraine, has grown louder in his calls for secession of the autonomous Serb Republic from Bosnia.

“I expect these elections to confirm the stability of Republika Srpska [Serb Republic],” he said, after voting. Bakir Izetbegovic, bidding for a new term as the Bosniak member of Bosnia’s tripartite presidency – Serbs and Croats also each have a representative – vowed for the end of divisions.

“It’s high time to end the standstill and I think that politicians have matured enough to come out of this vicious cycle,” he said yesterday.

The state election commission put preliminary turnout figures at 14 per cent, up from 13 per cent by the same time in the 2010 vote when the total turnout was 57 per cent.

Under its US-brokered post-war settlement, Bosnia is split into two autonomous regions joined by a weak central government, with power split along ethnic lines in a highly decentralised and costly system that frequently paralyses decision-making.

Close to 3.3 million voters choose between candidates for 518 posts across six layers of government, including the three-person presidency, the national parliament, the two regional parliaments, ten cantonal assemblies and another in the “neutral” district of Brcko.

With no clear frontrunners, the vote looks likely to be split between many players, raising the prospect of long delays in forming governments at the various levels.

That will worsen Bosnia’s economic outlook, already hit by the May floods which inflicted damage totalling about €2 billion.

“I wish there would be some radical change across the country, but I doubt it, because people here still vote according to national patterns,” said economist Miroslav Dardarevic, voting in the Serb Republic main city of Banja Luka.

The biggest election upset may come in the Serb region, where a coalition of opposition parties hopes to end Dodik’s eight years in power.