Citizens in Bosnia and Herzegovina’s ethnically divided town of Mostar have voted for their city councillors for the first time in 12 years, after the rival Croat and Bosniak parties that rule the town agreed on long-disputed electoral rules.
The town, in the south of the country in Herzegovina, is renowned for its Ottoman-era Old Bridge over the Neretva River, which was destroyed during Bosnia’s war in the 1990s but has since been restored.
It is the most multiethnic town in Bosnia, but the Croat and Bosniak communities have been largely separated by the river since the end of the war in which they fought each other.
Mostar has not held an election since 2008 because its Catholic Croats and Muslim Bosniaks were unable to agree on electoral rules.
But the dispute has been settled thanks to a 2019 court ruling won by Irma Baralija, a philosophy teacher who filed a suit against Bosnia at the European human rights court for failing to hold elections in Mostar.
“This is a very emotional day for us. This has already been a victory,” Baralija told Reuters TV, after casting her ballot on Sunday. She is standing for the multiethnic Our Party in the election.
Voters are choosing 35 city councillors from six ethnically-based electoral units and a central city zone.
Voter turnout was at 55 percent, election authorities said, after polling stations closed at 7pm local time (18:00 GMT).
The preliminary results are expected around midnight.
Al Jazeera’s Ivan Pavkovic, reporting from Mostar said international representatives in the country were optimistic.
“The US and EU ambassadors were today in Mostar. They said this is a very historical step forward, not only for this city but for the whole country… the country needs to move forward, 25 years after the Dayton peace agreement was signed.”
Pavkovic said “the city is still heavily burdened by these ethnic divisions between Bosniaks and Croats so it’s hard to expect dramatic political changes in the city”.
“It’s still a kind of Croat-Bosniak race for supremacy in the city. On the other hand, the civil society is getting stronger and that’s very important, so it is a huge step for the city and for Bosnia and Herzegovina that we do have these elections,” he said.
The Croat and Bosniak nationalist parties HDZ and SDA have held a firm grip over Mostar for the past quarter century, each governing its own part of the divided town and its separate utilities, postal companies, universities and hospitals.
The city centre is still dominated by buildings damaged during the war and much of the town’s infrastructure is in disrepair. Many state-owned firms in the town have shut down due to mismanagement and there has been an exodus of young people.
“I expect the city to start functioning because so far nothing has been functioning,” said Hedija Hadzic, a woman in her 50s, after casting the ballot. “At least, we’ll get the city council.”