Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Reset in the Local Elections

by Dr. Dženeta Karabegović

While the whole world was focused on the U.S. election results earlier this month, campaigning for local elections in Bosnia and Herzegovina was well underway. Despite the ongoing pandemic and epidemiological measures which limited events, campaigns moved ahead in an effort to raise voter turnout for what are usually lower turnout elections.[1] After all, broadening the body of voters means capturing new, younger, and dissatisfied voters, and thus, increasing your change at a win.

The preliminary results from the November 15 elections demonstrate the voters’ readiness at pressing the reset button. Ethno-national leading political parties, the Bosniak SDA (Party of Democratic Action), Bosnian Croat HDZ (Croatian Democratic Union), and the Bosnian Serb SNSD (Serb Alliance of Independent Social Democrats), have lost key races, some with rather large margins. While it’s important to note they still retain the majority of municipalities across the country, their losses feel monumental and come to many as a relief that change is possible.

For the four opposition parties in Sarajevo who united against the SDA (dubbed Četvorka), these results demonstrate the capital’s readiness to embrace not only the narrative of multi-ethnicity in its governance structures, but also a more liberal outlook. In Banja Luka, the election of the 27-year old PDP (Party of Democratic Progress) mayor-elect, Draško Stanivuković, indicates voters’ desire to free up the political and public spaces in the city from the party of Milorad Dodik (SNSD). Detailed autopsies of the election results are sure to follow in the days and weeks to come, including projections and expectations. Besides genuinely hoping that all epidemiological measures were in place during the election night, I will be watching for several things in the coming weeks and months.

Firstly, once the albatross Central Election Commission of Bosnia and Herzegovina officially certifies the results, I hope serious analysis of its procedures, the voter data, including demographics, turnout, and comparisons between the diaspora vote and that of those on the ground will follow, to name just a few possibilities. Reform, digitalization, and more transparency are needed. It would pave the way for better election analysis such as whether it is true that more young people voted, rather than veteran voters, who presumably stayed home in larger number due to the pandemic, and traditionally vote for incumbents. There has been much discussion about the political potential of the diaspora, as well as the drawbacks of the diaspora vote. It’s high time to look at the numbers and take real stock. This is particularly relevant for municipalities such as Srebrenica, where the mayoral race will likely be decided by diaspora voting,[2] or for the multitude of municipalities across the country experiencing high rates of emigration, and thus, the potential of an increase in votes from abroad in the future. More broadly, this is particularly relevant for all political parties as they prepare to better align their campaign strategies for the 2020 general elections.

More broadly, I see this election as a signal for an opportunity in Bosnia and Herzegovina to genuinely reset the political narratives which have dominated its elections over the last twenty five years. Local issues resonated for voters due to the inability of locally elected officials to do their jobs well – mismanagement of funds to respond to the pandemic, slow response times for hospitals and inadequate care, decaying infrastructure, political scandals, and inefficiency due to corruption. These issues and priorities are all equally relevant for citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina, regardless of ethnic belonging. There are numerous other issues with overarching consequences that are decided on in part by national governance structures. These can be incorporated into a political system which has traditionally worked to the advantage of ethnonationalist political parties. To name just a few – air quality, education, emigration and migration, transportation infrastructure, EU integration, and gender equity.

The electorate has demonstrated its readiness and desire for more substantive politics and willingness to make a change. As campaign season in Bosnia and Herzegovina rarely truly ends, it would behoove the opposition parties to sit down and consider their plans for the general election in a similar fashion as they have on the municipal level, while they also deliver on the promises made during the campaigns as they begin to govern. After all, we can be sure that while wounded, ethnonationalist parties in the country still retain levers of power and are already restructuring and preparing for the 2022 elections. In the meantime, they might also consider tempering their negative political campaigning and focusing on governing the country, at all levels, more effectively.

[1] BiH does not allow for mail-in voting except for those living abroad. This year, a little over 100,000 registered to vote, higher than usual, especially for local elections. However, there was a number of people who were visited by COVID mobile teams and were able to vote from home as a result of being in quarantine.
[2] There is historically much politicization around Srebrenica and voters from abroad, with both the Bosniak and the Bosnian Serb sides accusing the other side of voter fraud and other forms of tampering with the vote.

Dr. Dženeta Karabegović is based at the Division of Political Science and Sociology at the University of Salzburg. This semester, she is also a Think Visegrad Fellow at the Institute for International Relations in Prague, Czech Republic. Her academic work has been published in multiple peer-reviewed academic journals. She has co-edited two books: Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Foreign Policy since Independence with Palgrave (2019) and Diaspora Mobilizations for Transitional Justice with Routledge (2020).

The opinions expressed are solely of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Balkan Insider. 

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