High stakes in Bosnian elections

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

The political climate in Bosnia and Herzegovina has seriously deteriorated in recent years and following the elections this Sunday (3 October), the new government must aim for inter-ethnic consensus on the constitution, the country's EU path and a new socio-economic programme, writes Sofía Sebastián, associate researcher at think-tank FRIDE.


The following op-ed was sent exclusively to EURACTIV by FRIDE.

''On 3 October, Bosnians will decide on a new political leadership for their country. The past four years have been marked by strong nationalist rhetoric and contentious debate. Many key reforms have been unsuccessful, seriously diluted, or have required rigorous external arm-twisting. Frustrated with the pace and progress of the reform process, international policymakers have been forced to compromise their compliance standards.

While there is no immediate risk of a return to violence, the political climate has now deteriorated to the point where Bosnia runs the risk of sinking into a political quagmire in the absence of transformative change.

These elections are thus a potential watershed and represent a unique opportunity to bring new leadership to a tired political process. Despite the significant implications, however, the prospects for change are not encouraging. Regardless of the outcome, the Serb leader Milorad Dodik and the Bosniak president, Haris Silajdzic, are likely to maintain prominent positions in the post-election period.

Even if moderate forces succeed in winning a role in the formation of the new government, the complexity of the Bosnian political system is likely to preclude Bosnia from advancing down the path of EU integration and long-term stability.

Bosnia's challenges have been well publicised and are significant. Dayton has provided a legal framework for a system that rewards ethnic-based politics while encouraging fierce intra-ethnic political competition. In this environment, ethno-nationalist rhetoric has become entrenched and is encouraged by an ethnically divided power base.

The political process has also been impeded by a lack of political will, and by pervasive divisions relating to the nature and form of the Bosnian state. Bosniaks believe that the current state is dysfunctional, in part owing to a system of multiple ethnic-based vetoes and numerous blocking mechanisms. As the ethnic majority, they favour constitutional changes designed to make group and autonomy rights less prevalent.

Serb parties, on the contrary, seek to maintain the status quo as it allows them to obstruct decisions at the state level. In essence, Serbs consider a functional state to be a potential threat to their own political survival. For their part, the Croats are divided over these changes, supporting whichever party best serves their interests at any given moment.

In addition to the inherent challenges associated with the Dayton system, three factors are likely to make the upcoming elections particularly relevant. The first pertains to the future role of the international community and the looming closure of the Office of the High Representative (the international envoy entrusted with the implementation and monitoring of Dayton).

While the role of the High Representative (HR) has been controversial in recent years and at times served to heighten the political tension, the elimination of this institution is likely to create a political vacuum. This could create further political turmoil.

Regional issues represent a second risk factor for instability. In particular, Kosovo will remain a potent weapon of destabilisation; and a catalyst for radical forces to intensify the level of ethnic confrontation and social polarisation. This could be particularly problematic in a context of high unemployment and a downward economic trend.

The final factor relates to the process of EU integration. The risk is strong of Bosnia falling behind its neighbours should the new government fail to reach consensus on key reforms designed to advance the process of EU integration. Both Albania and Serbia are likely to gain candidacy status in the near future, in which case Bosnia would be the only country in the Balkans failing to comply with the EU candidacy requirements.

Furthermore, failure to adopt constitutional changes pursuant to the judgement of the European Court of Human Rights will have damaging consequences for accession. The EU has already indicated a willingness to take punitive actions, including suspension of the Stabilisation and Association Agreement.

It is thus critical that post-election talks and the formation of a new government are based on reaching inter-ethnic consensus on three issues that will be fundamental to Bosnia's future stability. These include constitutional changes, required to advance the process of EU integration; accepting the Euro-Atlantic security agenda; and the promotion of a new socioeconomic programme.

The post-election period will demonstrate the extent to which the new authorities are ready to act responsibly and prepare the country for these challenges.''

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