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Serb Prime Minister Milorad Dodik of the Union of Independent Social Democrats (SNSD) casts his vote at polling station in Banja Luka, Bosnia,120 km west of Sarajevo, on Sunday, Oct. 3, 2010. With the top candidates fiercely at odds over Bosnia's future, voters cast ballots Sunday in elections likely to further entrench their nation's ethnic divisions and threaten possible EU entry. (Amel Emric/AP Photo/Amel Emric)
Serb Prime Minister Milorad Dodik of the Union of Independent Social Democrats (SNSD) casts his vote at polling station in Banja Luka, Bosnia,120 km west of Sarajevo, on Sunday, Oct. 3, 2010. With the top candidates fiercely at odds over Bosnia's future, voters cast ballots Sunday in elections likely to further entrench their nation's ethnic divisions and threaten possible EU entry. (Amel Emric/AP Photo/Amel Emric)

Bosnians hope Sunday vote will push Balkan country onto EU track Add to ...

In the lively heart of Sarajevo's Old Town, two small boys battle with toy guns, dodging between shoppers and bullet-pocked buildings plastered with the political slogans that read: "People know," and "State for Man."

Born in the post-war period, these boys have never experienced the violent conflict that engulfed their country and are likely unaware that a subtler battle for their future within Europe is being fought in a current election campaign.

In recent years, the small Balkan country has attempted to move away from its conflict-ridden past and look forward to eventual integration with the European Union. But while neighbouring Croatia is likely to become an EU member in 2011 and other nearby Balkan countries have made strides toward the standards set by the EU, Bosnia's progress is threatened.

On Sunday, the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina headed to the polls for a national election - the country's sixth democratic outing since war ended in 1995. Many are hoping - but not holding their breath - that these elections will push forward from the paralysis within Bosnia's internal political structure that has essentially halted its European aspirations.

The current political system and constitution was conceived in the 1995 Dayton Peace Agreement. But today, the country's Byzantine system of government - Sunday's national elections will be conducted on six different levels - is in desperate need of legislative and constitutional reform in order to achieve eventual EU membership.

"The constitution - I'm sure it is the worst in Europe but it was the price to pay to have peace… It stopped the war but now it needs to be changed," said Osvit Seferovic, a Bosnian citizen recently returned from France and now working with a local democracy promotion group in the western city of Mostar. "This is not a country of citizens, this is a country of ethnic identities."

Political culture in Bosnia remains entrenched along ethnic or nationalist lines and much of this is related to the constitutional requirements for each of its three constituent peoples - Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims). Political power is tied to blocs within each group and there is not much interaction or co-operation among them or outside the group.

As the current Bosnian political system stands now, it is deemed to be 'Un-European,' said Ambassador Daan Everts from the Netherlands. Mr. Everts is the head of a team of observers sent by the Office for Democratic Institute and Human Rights and Organization and the Organization for Security and Co-operation of Europe to observe the elections and offer recommendations.

For Bosnia to meet with the European requirements of universality and suffrage, Mr. Everts said, it would have to change the constitutional requirement that requires presidential candidates and those standing for state-level seats to declare themselves as a member of one of the three constituent peoples. This denies any of Bosnia's minorities or those who do not wish to declare an ethnicity a chance to run for office.

But there have been signs the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina are tired of the old ethnic-style politics that have not produced solid policies to address the growing problems of poor economic outlook and widespread corruption.

A recent Ipsos poll commissioned by the Bosnian branch of the National Democratic Institute showed that 87 per cent of Bosnians feel the country is being led in the wrong direction with the current nationalist parties in power.

Smaller, citizen-led, multi-ethnic parties such as Nasa Stranka (Our Party) have emerged and larger mainstream parties such as SDP (Social Democratic Party) are appealing across ethnic lines and gaining more widespread support in the current campaign.

This is apparent even in divided areas such as Mostar, where Croat and Bosniak children are educated separately within the same building. In a televised debate, local candidates running in the region indicated there needs to be a move toward a more European-style education, without segregation by ethnic group or religion.

But it is too early to declare nationalist politics on the way out entirely in Bosnia, particularly on the regional level.

Earlier in the year, Milorad Dodik, the current prime minister of the Serb-dominated entity Republika Sprska who is now running for president, spoke of a referendum that would see his region gain autonomy, citing the recent independence of Kosovo as proof that it could be done. Mr. Dodik's party, SNSD, is likely to form the government in Republika Srpska after Sunday's elections.

These talks of secession have raised alarms in the Croat/Bosniak Federation entity. In his speech in front of the United Nations General Assembly last week, Haris Silajdzic, one of three current presidents of Bosnia, spoke against any move that would break up the country.

Despite small signs of progress, not many are optimistic that these will be the elections that move Bosnia back on track to the EU.

"[The campaign]started full-blast in November last year and people are just really tired of it, it created such an frenzied media atmosphere that people just started taking shelter," said Mr. Sanel Huskic, president of ACIPS, a local think tank based at the University of Sarajevo. "One can guess that as a result there will be a very low turnout of voters."

Voter turnout from the last general elections in 2006 was only 52 per cent and Mr. Huskic predicts a similar or slighter higher turnout this Sunday.

Special to The Globe and Mail

 

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