Changing Dynamics in the Western Balkans
Changing Dynamics in the Western Balkans
Report 56 / Europe & Central Asia

Breaking the Mould

Electoral reform is on the agenda this year in Bosnia and Herzegovina. For too long the country has been ruled by leaders who draw support from only one of the three main ethnic groups.

Executive Summary

Electoral reform is on the agenda this year in Bosnia and Herzegovina. For too long the country has been ruled by leaders who draw support from only one of the three main ethnic groups. These leaders have been unable to co-operate on even the simplest matters, inhibiting the implementation of the Dayton Peace Agreement (DPA) and forcing the international community to micromanage the country. Electoral reform offers one promising way to allow Bosnians to choose less confrontational leaders, and so start to accept responsibility for their own future.

Some Bosnians vote for nationalist parties simply because they want Bosnia to remain divided. But others feel obliged to vote nationalist for defensive reasons, out of fear of extremists in other groups. The effects of the ‘fear vote’ maintain the strength of all three national party structures. If this fear were removed voters might be more willing to vote for more moderate parties. The existing electoral system offers them no incentive to do this, nor is there any way to tell how numerous these hidden moderates are. A sensitive approach to election reform could liberate their wishes for better government.

The DPA formulae impose limits on the scope of reform. For example there is no election in which all the voters of BiH vote together for an overall result – even the BiH Presidency is at least two separate elections which happen to occur at the same time. But the system of partylist proportional representation, used for all elected assemblies, can be changed, and should be changed, for it bears much of the responsibility for election outcomes to date.

Different voting systems favour different outcomes. Voters with different political views may support various types of reform depending on their own agenda. Systems can be designed which will favour any of a range of broad results.

For example, the most direct way to penalise parties which appeal to only one ethnic group of voters is to give voters of all ethnic groups a say in who are elected as leaders of each ethnic group. This implies some form of multiple-vote system. Either the parties could be divided up into ethnic lists, and each voter vote on each list; or the voters could be invited to declare their ethnic affiliation, and each party required to attract a minimum of support from each group. An Annex to the main paper demonstrates the striking results which can be achieved using a multiple-vote system.

But the immediate task is not to design a perfect system. If electoral reform is to be effective as a means of bringing better government to Bosnia, the Bosnians themselves need to be involved in the process. Otherwise they are likely to regard the reform with indifference or hostility, as just another foreign imposition.

The Madrid Peace Implementation Council has already tasked the OSCE with conducting a public outreach campaign. This means that the debate needs to spread beyond the circles of urban intellectuals where it has been conducted so far. It is important that this campaign should:

  • be conducted in terms that people can understand; 
  • take place not only on television and radio but also in public places all over the country;
  • have a Bosnian face, avoiding as far as possible the use of foreigners with interpreters;
  • be monitored with regular polling, both of awareness of the issues and of shifts in attitudes (if any).

If the debate is successful it should both produce ideas which can contribute to the electoral model to be adopted, and generate a wave of support for reform. Popular support will be vital if a new system is to be introduced which will threaten the power of Bosnia’s current leaders. Referenda may have a role to play in expressing that support, but the way forward will only become clear in the light of the public debate.

Sarajevo, 04 March 1999

Changing Dynamics in the Western Balkans

This week on War & Peace, Olga Oliker talks to Crisis Group expert Marko Prelec about the precarious situation in the Western Balkans, as Serb separatism in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the frozen Kosovo-Serbia dispute continue to stoke regional instability.

The Western Balkans, a region defined in part by not being in the European Union, also contains several countries that were devastated by war in the 1990s. Now it faces new troubles, driven in part by the legacies of the old. Bosnia and Herzegovina is confronted with calls for secession in the autonomous Serb-dominated region, Republika Srpska, as well as the ongoing electoral grievances of its Croat minority. Meanwhile, efforts to resolve Kosovo’s dispute with Serbia over its independence have come to a standstill, leaving minority communities on both sides of the border vulnerable.

This week on War & Peace, Olga Oliker talks to Marko Prelec, Crisis Group’s Consulting Senior Analyst for the Balkans, about why ethnic tensions persist in the region and whether there is any risk of a return to conflict. They discuss the prospects for European integration, asking whether the promise of EU membership remains an effective incentive for resolving these longstanding disputes. They also consider what impact Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has had for stability in the Western Balkans, a region where painful memories of war are still very salient today.

Click here to listen on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

For more of Crisis Group’s analysis, make sure to check out our Balkans regional page and keep an eye out for our upcoming report on the risk of instability in the Western Balkans.

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