Nationalist politics and ethnic division are major themes in Bosnia’s elections, more than a decade after genocide.
Bosnian voters are heading to the polls for a general election that could further deepen ethnic divisions that have brought the Balkan state to a virtual political stalemate.
Polls opened at 0500GMT on Sunday for the election in which 3.1 million eligible voters are to choose the members of the country’s rotating tripartite central presidency, as well as its central parliament.
Bosnia’s two semi-independent entities, Serb-dominated Republika Srpska (RS) and the Muslim-Croat Federation, will vote for their own parliaments.
According to the Bosnian constitution, the presidency consists of one member from each of the country’s ethnic groups – a Bosniak and Croat elected from the Federation and a Serb from the Republika Srpska.
The members of the presidency serve a four-year term together. Initially, the member who receives the most votes is chairman, and subsequently, the chairmanship rotates every eight months.
In the RS, voters will also elect a president, while those in the Federation are to choose district assemblies.
The polls have been described as the most crucial vote since the civil war ended 15 years ago. But much of the campaigning has focused on ethnic divisions, with political parties urging people to vote for candidates of their own ethnic group.
Tanja Topic, a political analyst, compared the campaign to 1990, when communist Yugoslavia had just collapsed and Bosnia was left to decide whether it should become part of a greater Serbia or form an independent multi-ethnic country.
“So for exactly 20 years we have been spinning around in the same political pattern,” Topic told The Associated Press.
The country’s Serbian parties have focused on their demand for secession for Republika Srpska, while Croats have called for their own autonomous region.
Milorad Dodik, the Republika Srpska prime minister, has used the International Court of Justice ruling in July, which stated that Kosovo’s declaration of independence from Serbia was legal, as the basis for his demand for an independence state.
“Only the Serb Republic is self-sustaining, Bosnia-Herzegovina is not,” he told a pre-election rally.
Dodik has also entered into a “strategic partnership” with Dragan Covic, the Bosnian Croat nationalist leader, to support each others’ calls for greater independence.
The majority Bosniak Muslims have said they will fight for a united Bosnia-Herzegovina and are seeking a stronger central government, a key condition for European Union membership, which the region is seeking.
But Al Jazeera’s Nazanine Moshiri, reporting from Banja Luka, the administrative centre of Republika Srpska, said joining the EU would be difficult at this point.
“This region wants to join the EU, but they not going to be able to do that if they do not reform the economy and reform the government.
“The country is at a crossroads – nothing really has changed 15 years on. The ethnic divisions which existed then still exist now, education is divided, many people are still divided.
“Until integration starts, it is difficult to arrive at a point where Bosnia as a whole can then say, ‘We want to integrate and join the EU’.”
Tiana Cvjeticanin, a researcher with the non-governmental organisation “Why not?” in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina, said the elections are crucial because Bosnians are expecting “that a change will finally happen”.
“We need a new ruling establishment, because the ones who are in power now have proved they are not capable of leading the country and bringing the necessary reforms,” she told Al Jazeera.
“Civil society has been very active about these elections and we hope this will have an impact.
But she said she did not think the vote would heighten ethnic tensions.
“Hopefully not, [though] if we keep the same elites in power then we don’t know. But if change does happen, I don’t think this will be the consequence of the election.”
The latest opinion polls suggest that Dodik’s Alliance of Independent Social Democrats (SNSD) is set to remain the strongest party in the Serb Republic and probably in the country.
The multi-ethnic Social Democratic Party (SDP), headed by computer science professor Zlatko Lagumdzija and the country’s largest opposition party, is tipped to become the strongest party in the Muslim-Croat federation, followed by the SDA.
Dodik has dismissed the possibility of any coalition with Lagumdzija at the state level, which could drag out the formation of a new central government for months.
The first official results for the presidency were expected by midnight, while preliminary results in the other races could come out by Monday morning.
More than 1,200 observers, including 485 international observers, have been registered to monitor the vote.