Oct 3, 2022 - World

Bosnia's moderates make gains in elections but nationalists retain power

A voter reads an election ballot at a polling station

A voter reads an election ballot at a polling station in Sarajevo, Bosnia on Oct. 2. Photo: Andrej Isakovic/AFP via Getty Images

Elections in Bosnia on Sunday were set to yield gains for some more moderate candidates even as the primary ethno-nationalist parties looked set to control of the country's national and entity parliaments, preliminary results show.

Why it matters: Bosnia has what is often described as the world's most complicated system of government and its composition is structured to favor nationalist tendencies. But Sunday's result could provide an opportunity for reformist forces to wield more political influence in the country.

Catch up quick: The end of the Bosnian war in 1995 was marked by the signing of the Dayton Peace Agreement, which established two entities in Bosnia — the Republika Srpska and the Bosniak-Croat Federation, linked by a central government.

  • The Dayton agreement also established international mechanisms to protect the peace in Bosnia, which today take the form of a residual EU peacekeeping force and a civilian executive peace enforcement mechanism, the Office of the High Representative (OHR).

Details: Preliminary results on Monday morning showed moderate incumbent Željko Komšić on track to win another term as the Bosnian Croat seat of the tripartite presidency, AP reported.

  • Early results also pointed to a victory for Social Democrat Denis Bećirović over Bakir Izetbegović of the ethno-nationalist SDA, the largest Bosniak party, which has held the Bosniak post of the presidency nearly consecutively since the country's independence.

The defeat of Izetbegović and the "relatively poor showing" of his SDA party is the resounding takeaway from the election, Damir Marusic, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council's Europe Center, told Axios.

  • "There is perhaps an opportunity here for real changes coming to Bosnia, if all sides are creative," he said.

But, but, but: Komšić and Bećirović are set to be joined in the tripartite presidency by hardliner Željka Cvijanović, an ally of secessionist Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik and a member of his SNSD party.

  • Meanwhile, Dodik is set to win the presidency of Republika Srpska. Notably, Dodik and his SNSD won the elections by smaller margins than in 2018, Balkan Insight reported.
  • Still, both the national and regional parliaments are slated to still be dominated by the major and long-entrenched ethno-nationalist parties, Reuters reported.

The big picture: The enduring power of the ethno-nationalist parties was largely expected, but a surprise change came when shortly after polls closed the high representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina announced that he was using his executive powers to change the country's election law.

  • For months, Christian Schmidt called for changing Bosnia's election law, which currently dictates that representatives to the Federation's House of Peoples be chosen on a 1-1-1 basis, with each region providing at least one Bosniak, one Croat and one Serb representative.
  • The changes introduced by Schmidt — which he said would improve the federation's "functionality" — included increasing the number of delegates in the House of Peoples and how they are chosen in order to correct "over-representation" in regions with small populations of certain groups.

The U.S. and U.K. quickly issued statements in support of the decision.

  • However, the EU distanced itself from the move, noting in a statement that "this was a decision of the High Representative alone" and that the OHR's executive powers "should be used solely as a measure of last resort against irreparable unlawful acts."

What they're saying: "Schmidt’s move is unprecedented," Marusic said.

  • "The way in which this decision was passed, just as polling closed, is sure to leave a mark on Bosnian society," Marusic added.
  • Florian Bieber, a professor in South East European History at the University of Graz, told Axios that Schmidt’s move was problematic because it took the opportunity to deal with these issues away from newly elected leaders, whose own solutions would be seen to have greater legitimacy.
  • "Imposing such changes delegitimizes the elections as it changes the institutional setup for which people voted," Bieber added. "Second, the rules do further increase the ethnification of the country."
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