Doing Democracy a Disservice
Doing Democracy a Disservice
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Changing Dynamics in the Western Balkans
Changing Dynamics in the Western Balkans
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

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.



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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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