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Report 42 / Europe & Central Asia

Doing Democracy a Disservice

The stakes in Bosnia’s forthcoming elections, the fifth internationally-supervised poll since the end of the war, could not be higher, for Bosnia and Herzegovina (Bosnia) and also for the international community.

Executive Summary

The stakes in Bosnia’s forthcoming elections, the fifth internationally-supervised poll since the end of the war, could not be higher, for Bosnia and Herzegovina (Bosnia) and also for the international community.  Having invested enormous financial and political capital in the peace process, the international community expects a return on its investment.  That is why leading international figures including US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright have entered the Bosnian political fray, urging Bosnians to back parties which “support Dayton” and threatening to withdraw aid if they do not.  The elections will bring some changes so the event will be hailed as a triumph.  However, they will not lay the ground for a self-sustaining peace process.  That can only be achieved by political reform and, in particular, a redesign of the electoral system to guarantee Bosnians ethnic security.

Democratic elections are all too often simplistically put forward in the West as a panacea, as if by itself the act of voting will all cure ills within a society.  Here it is worth bearing in mind that both Bosnia and the rest of the former Yugoslavia had already held democratic elections when they fell apart in war.  Indeed, their disintegration can, in part, be attributed to the nature of the democracy which emerged.  In Bosnia the 1990 election amounted to a poor ethnic census and as politicians exclusively represented the narrow interests of their own ethnic group and not the entire electorate, Bosnian society polarised and politics degenerated into a zero-sum affair.

The issue of democracy in a multi-ethnic state has generated a great deal of academic debate.  Early political philosophers such as John Stuart Mill were sceptical about the prospects for democracy in a multi-ethnic state arguing that “free institutions are next to impossible in an country made up of different nationalities”.  Contemporary political scientists have a more optimistic view and look to designing democratic institutions in such a way that they reconcile legitimate interests of different communities based on local conditions.  In Bosnia, therefore, the environment for democracy, the conditions and the political and electoral systems are critical.

Though elections formed the cornerstone of the Dayton Peace Agreement (DPA), the conditions in which any kind of fair poll could take place simply did not and could not exist without a major restructuring of Bosnian society.  Before giving the go-ahead to Bosnia’s 1996 elections, the OSCE’s then Chairman-in-Office Flavio Cotti warned that if minimal prerequisites were not met before polling day, the vote ought not to take place as it would lead to “pseudo-democratic legitimisation of extreme nationalist power structures”.  His words were prophetic.  The elections simply ratified the status quo, conferring mandates on the nationalists who had prosecuted the war who continued to pursue the same policies.  The result was further zero-sum politics.  The current elections will again ratify the status quo.  They will not of themselves take the peace process forward.  However, today’s Bosnia is very different from that of 1996.

The changes which will be hailed as electoral breakthroughs should not be attributed to the flowering of democracy in Bosnia.  They are instead the result of the way in which the international community has ridden roughshod over Bosnia’s democratic institutions.  The status quo has been forcibly changed by interventionist policies aimed at loosening the grip of the political parties which emerged victorious in the 1996 poll.  Snatch operations against indicted war criminals, robust SFOR intervention in Banja Luka in the summer of 1997, SFOR seizure of Bosnian Serb television’s transmitters in October 1997, destroying the financial base of hard-line politicians, dismissing officials and striking candidates from electoral lists have created a new Bosnian reality.

The greatest changes will be among Serbs in Republika Srpska where support for the SDS is likely to disintegrate.  The SDS already lost control over the entity’s National Assembly in November 1997, has seen its financial base disappear, and has been deprived of access to media.  In recent months the power struggle has spilled over into violence with one assassination and another attempted assassination.  The post-electoral alliances may prove interesting.

Among Bosniacs, the changes will be less dramatic.  The main opposition party, the SDP, is likely to do better because there should be no repetition of the fraud which marred the 1996 poll, electors who backed Haris Silajdzic in 1996 will probably switch allegiance, and the party has waged a successful campaign.  At the presidential level, however, the SDP did not bother even to put up a candidate against the incumbent Alija Izetbegovic.  This throws up an interesting possibility in the battle for the Croat member of the Presidency because of a quirk in the electoral system.  Electors in the Federation have one vote at the presidential level and can choose whether to use it for a Bosniac or a Croat candidate.  Since Izetbegovic’s election is a foregone conclusion, a large number of Bosniacs in the Federation may opt to vote for the Croat member of the Presidency, in which case the HDZ’s candidate and favourite Ante Jelavic could be defeated.  Otherwise, the NHI, the new Croat party of Kresimir Zubak is likely to make modest inroads which could, nevertheless, transform politics in certain cantons.

Despite the changes in parties and personnel in power, the elections will not have much impact on the logic of Bosnian politics.  Having been elected on the basis of votes of a single community, ethnically-based parties will only represent the interests, or what they deem to be the interests of that one ethnic group and feel no obligation to the rest of Bosnia’s population.  Instead of seeking accommodation, these parties will view every political issue as a “zero-sum” game in which there will inevitably be a winner and a loser and thus fail to reach compromise.  The fundamental flaw is the lack of ethnic security.  This is the underlying reason for conflict within the country as well as for the lack of trust between ethnic groups.  Moreover, the lack of ethnic security undermines everything the international community is attempting to achieve and fails to offer Bosnians a future.  As a result, many young, educated Bosnians are voting with their feet and emigrating.

In every country, the electoral system has a profound effect on political life, influencing the way parties campaign and political elites behave.  In multi-ethnic societies the choice of system is especially important.  Depending on the system selected, it can either provide incentives for parties to be broad-based and accommodating, or it can achieve the opposite, namely to encourage parties to form around narrow appeals to ethnicity.  ICG has proposed a radical reform of the electoral system requiring candidates to seek the support of all ethnic groups, not just their own.  Moreover, a permanent electoral law is currently being drawn up for Bosnia which should be passed by the end of the year.  For democracy to thrive in Bosnia, for Bosnians to have a future and the peace process to become self-sustaining in the absence of today’s colossal international presence, it is critical that the new law builds in ethnic security.

Sarajevo, 9 September 1998

Report 232 / Europe & Central Asia

Bosnia’s Future

While the physical scars of the 1992-1995 Bosnia war have healed, political agony and ethnic tension persist. Real peace requires a new constitution and bottom-up political change.

Executive Summary

Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH, or Bosnia) poses little risk of deadly conflict, but after billions of dollars in foreign aid and intrusive international administration and despite a supportive European neighbourhood, it is slowly spiralling toward disintegration. Its three communities’ conflicting goals and interests are a permanent source of crisis, exacerbated by a constitution that meets no group’s needs. The political elite enjoys mastery over all government levels and much of the economy, with no practical way for voters to dislodge it. The European Union (EU) imposes tasks BiH cannot fulfil. A countrywide popular uprising torched government buildings and demanded urgent reforms in February 2014, but possible solutions are not politically feasible; those that might be politically feasible seem unlikely to work. Bosnia’s leaders, with international support, must begin an urgent search for a new constitutional foundation.

The international project to rebuild Bosnia has had success: war’s physical scars are largely gone, and the country is peaceful. The political agonies, however, show the intervention’s limits. Years of well-intentioned reforms, imposed or urged, have left a governing structure leaders circumvent, ignore or despise. May’s floods left scores dead and thousands homeless, exposing the price of poor governance. With growing frequency, Bosnians ask the questions that preceded the 1992-1995 war: shall it be one country, two, or even three; if one country, shall it have one, two or three constituent entities, and how shall it be governed?

The heart of the problem is in Annex 4 to the Dayton Peace Agreement, known as the constitution (and in several changes imposed by courts and international officials). It defines BiH as a state of two entities, in effect but not explicitly federal, but also the state of three constituent peoples (Bosniaks, Croats, Serbs), and yet, simultaneously, of all citizens. A suffocating layer of ethnic quotas has been added, providing sinecures for officials increasingly remote from the communities they represent. The tensions created by constitutional schizophrenia are pushing BiH to the breaking point. A new design is needed: a normal federation, territorially defined, without a special role for constituent peoples, but responsive to the interests of its three communities and the rights of all citizens.

The state administration’s need to reform is made acute by a 2009 decision of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) that in effect requires BiH to change the ethnicity-based way it chooses its chief executive and part of its legislature. Existing proposals try to squeeze the constituent peoples into an ostensibly ethnicity-blind structure on top of which a complicated network of indirect elections would allow party leaders to choose the executive with as little democratic input as possible. The EU and the outside world support this tinkering with Dayton to satisfy the decision, though such proposals have manifestly failed. Bosnians need to rebuild their political structure from the bottom up.

There is no consensus on where to start, but Bosnia may have to break from its political system based on constituent peoples and their rights. Crisis Group has not reached this conclusion lightly. It reflects long experience and observation that no one has been able to frame a broadly attractive vision on the existing flawed basis. With stresses and frustrations accumulating in all communities, Bosnia must conceive new foundations to survive. Agreement may take years and much experimentation and debate, but the search should begin.

BiH is home to three political communities: those primarily loyal to the Bosnian state, usually but not always Bosniaks; those loyal to Republika Srpska (RS), usually Serbs; and those desirous of Croat self-government, usually Croats. Giving the Croats what they want, their own entity to make a three-entity Bosnia, is absolutely rejected by Bosniaks. Building virtual representative units for the three communities, possibly with new emphasis on municipalities as basic building blocks, is intellectually plausible but requires a leap of faith few seem ready to take. A purely civic state is inconceivable to Serbs and Croats.

Neither leaders nor civil society have deeply explored alternatives to three constituent peoples in two entities; any consensus would take time. Nevertheless, the goal should be clear. The head of state should reflect Bosnia’s diversity, something a collective does better than an individual. The same body could be the executive government. Some decisions should require consensus, others a majority. All three communities should be represented, not necessarily in equal numbers. There should be no ethnic quotas; representation should reflect self-defined regions and all their voters. Poorly performing, unnecessary state agencies and ministries should be slimmed or abolished, with powers reverting to the entities; but the state would need new ministries and agencies required for EU membership. The ten cantons in the larger of BiH’s two entities, the Federation (FBiH), are an underperforming, superfluous layer. They could be abolished, their powers divided between the municipalities and the entity government.

Political culture is part of the problem; an informal “Sextet” of party leaders in effect controls government and much of the economy. A multi-ethnic coalition persists, election to election, with only minor adjustments. Membership is earned by winning opaque intra-party competitions in which voters have little say. Change in this system can only come from within: Bosnians should join parties and participate in genuine leadership contests. Sextet power is further buttressed by control of hiring, investment and commercial decisions at state-owned firms, a situation that chokes private investment and growth.

Bosnia is unimaginable without the work of international officials who did much to shape political institutions and implement peace, but the international community has become more obstacle than help. BiH is trapped in a cycle of poorly thought-out, internationally-imposed tasks designed to show leaders’ readiness to take responsibility but that put that moment forever out of reach. The only way to encourage leaders to take responsibility is to treat the country normally, without extraneous tests or High Representatives. The EU could signal a new start by stating it will receive a membership application – the first of many steps on the long accession road. It should then be an engaged, not over-didactic partner in Bosnia’s search for a way to disentangle the constitutional knot.