On October 3, Bosnians cast their votes to decide on new leadership for the country. The results were somewhat unexpected; especially on the Bosniak side. Radical Bosniak leader Haris Silajdzic lost the Presidential election to turn-moderate SDA candidate Bakir Izetbegovic (son of legendary wartime Bosniak leader Alija Izetbegovic). The fairly moderate turn of the Bosniak electorate resonated in the parliamentary elections, with non-nationalist SDP winning most votes from the Croat-Muslim Federation (closely followed by SDA). The results from the Serb and Croat constituencies remained fairly consistent, although smaller parties could play a greater role in post-elections coalition talks than in previous elections.

Irrespective of the nature and form of the new government coalition, the new Bosnian authorities will have to be prepared to lead the country’s transition from an international semi-protectorate to a sovereign state with a reinforced EU presence on the ground. The most urgent matters will focus on an international agenda, including progress on the Euro-Atlantic reform process (which has virtually ground to a halt as a result of local obstruction); and constitutional negotiations aimed at establishing a more efficient institutional framework.  This framework would presumably allow major international players such as the US to rest quietly while the EU prepares the country for accession.

The tasks ahead are significant, but the results of the elections cast serious doubts about the ability of the new leadership to guide the country through the upcoming challenges.

There are two issues that are particularly concerning. The first relates to the persistence of rampant divisions relating to the nature and form of the Bosnian state. While nationalist rhetoric has somewhat abated since the end of the elections, the post-election period has been marked by a plethora of radical statements in relation to Bosnia’s constitutional status. Serb leader Milorad Dodik, for example, has indicated a lack of interest in substantially changing the constitutional framework (which Bosniak parties find unacceptable). He has also expressed support for the creation of a third Croat entity within the boundaries of the Federation, a concept that Bosniaks vigorously oppose. SDP leader Zlatko Lagumdzija has responded with strong rhetoric and has suggested that secession attempts from RS will likely be contested with physical force.

 

While parties are beginning to prepare for what many see as imminent constitutional negotiations, the atmosphere is not conducive to post-election coalition talks. Furthermore, the discussion of government formation in the context of constitutional reform talks could serve to muddy the political waters and have unexpected consequences with respect to the international agenda in Bosnia; especially if parties fail to reach common ground on basic principles.

The second disrupting factor is related to the intricate political landscape resulting from the elections; a corollary of the complexity of the Bosnian political system. While election law does not require parties to form cross-ethnic coalitions prior to the elections (the system actually promotes ethno-nationalist platforms), government formation involves leaders from different ethnic backgrounds and ideologies to come together on a common government agenda; which usually takes months to agree upon.

Coalition talks are likely to be particularly difficult this time around given that SDP and SNSD (sworn political enemies), hold the majority of seats in parliament and are fiercely disputing the right to define the government on their own terms. Dodik has already made it clear that he has no intention of allowing SDP leader Lagumdzija to become either Chair of the CoM or Minister of Foreign Affairs. This creates a political reality in which, unless smaller parties play their cards wisely, opposing leaders will need to repair their differences in order to prepare the country for the myriad upcoming challenges.

Many regard SDA’s leader Sulejman Tihic as an appropriate mediator to bring these two leaders together, but the new government will also depend greatly on intra-ethnic political calculations of smaller parties such as Serb party SDS, Croat off-shoot party HDZ 1990 and newly created Bosniak SBB. Control over entity voting in the parliament (particularly from RS) will also play a big role in determining the character of the new government; and will preclude Bosniak parties from fantasizing about the possibility (and convenience) of permanently sidelining SNSD.

Intense negotiations will invariably ensue, and internationals will play a prominent role (the recent visit of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Sarajevo was not coincidental). The ability of external actors to influence Bosnian politics is limited however, given that local parties are well versed in ignoring international pleas and resisting external arm-twisting. Notwithstanding the limited room for maneuvering, pressure for the creation of a stable government that includes major parties (especially SDP) will be strong. It is critical that Bosnian leaders act responsibly, and form a coalition that will successfully lead the country’s transition to full sovereignty.

Sofia Sebastian, Postdoctoral Fellow at the Graduate Center, City University of New York, and FRIDE’s Research Fellow.

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