Bosnia election: Growing ethnic tensions dominate polls

Voters are choosing three members of the shared Bosnian presidency, parliament deputies, and the president of the country’s Republika Srpska.

Bosnian man casts his vote at a poling station in Sarajevo, Bosnia
A Bosnian man casts his vote at a polling station in Sarajevo, Bosnia, on Sunday [Armin Durgut/AP]

Bosnia’s polls closed in a contest between entrenched nationalists and economy-focused reformists.

Election authorities said 35 percent of nearly 3.4 million people eligible to vote turned out on Sunday to cast their ballots by 3pm (13:00 GMT) with the first official results expected in the coming hours. 

Despite reports of irregularities and the detention of some people over ballot fraud, officials said the vote proceeded in a satisfactory manner.

Bosnia is going through its worst political crisis since the end of its war in the 1990s, prompted by separatist policies of the Serb leadership and threats of blockades by Bosnian Croats.

Voters cast ballots for the three members of Bosnia’s tripartite presidency, members of parliament, and the president of the country’s Republika Srpska.

Some 90 political parties have fielded their candidates with another 17 candidates running as independents.

Nearly three decades after war ravaged the Balkan country, Bosnia continues to be burdened by its ethnic divisions.

It has been governed by a dysfunctional administrative system created by the 1995 Dayton Agreement that succeeded in ending the conflict in the 1990s but has largely failed in providing a framework for the country’s political development.

The peace agreement divided the country into two highly independent governing entities: the Republika Srpska – which has a predominantly Serb population – and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which is shared by Bosniaks and Croats.

The two entities have broad autonomy but are linked by shared national institutions. All countrywide actions require consensus from all three ethnic groups.

In the war’s wake, ethnic political parties have long exploited the country’s divisions in a bid to maintain power.

“People are not being represented equally and our democracy and our sovereignty is always being challenged by the others,” Ena Porca, a first-time voter told Al Jazeera.

Lack of new contenders

With little to no polling data available, analysts say incumbents and nationalist parties that have dominated the post-war political scene are likely to win many of the races.

Adnan Huskic, a professor of political science, told Al Jazeera the electoral conditions are a “perfect storm” where nationalist parties represent their own interests rather than that of constituents.

“Raising ethnic tensions and producing problems and conflicts is how they divert the attention of the public from grave socioeconomic conditions,” he said.

Many voters say the lack of young candidates offering new ideas has left them largely uninspired.

“Most of the candidates that are running are the ones we have been watching for the last 20 years,” said Sara Djogic, a 21-year-old philosophy student in the capital Sarajevo. “There are not many who offer something new.”

The country is torn between secessionist Orthodox Serbs and Catholic Croats demanding greater autonomy and electoral reforms.

The country’s Bosniaks will also face a choice of voting for a disparate, 11-party coalition that is trying to unseat the rule of the mainstream SDA.

The SDA is led by Bakir Izetbegovic – the son of the first president of independent Bosnia – and has largely dominated the political scene in the country for decades.

Meanwhile, the long-serving Bosnian Serb political leader, Milorad Dodik, is seeking his third term as the president of Republika Srpska and has used the election campaign to champion a secessionist agenda and Russia’s war in Ukraine – which resulted in the US placing him under new sanctions in January.

Dodik’s primary challenger, Jelena Trivic, has promised to crack down on corruption in Republika Srpska if elected.

“Our revenge will be the law,” Trivic said ahead of the polls.

Threats and vitriol

Bosnia has never fully recovered from its interethnic 1992-1995 war, which had a death toll of nearly, 100,000. The war started when Serbs, who accounted for about a third of the population, tried to dismember it and unite the territories they claimed as their own with neighbouring Serbia.

In the past eight years alone, nearly half a million people are estimated to have emigrated due to a lack of jobs, poor public services and endemic corruption.

A nationwide opinion survey published last week on public perception of elections indicated more than 40 percent of Bosnians believed their country’s electoral system did not allow for a genuine reflection of citizens’ will.

Nearly 10 percent of the respondents in the survey, commissioned by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, said they experienced pressure on family members while another 6.8 percent reported having been threatened with loss of employment if they did not vote for a particular party or a candidate.

The ever-present threats and vitriol have led some to skip the polling booth Sunday.

“I do not expect anything new after these elections. Everything will be the same,” said Mira Sladojevic, a pensioner in her 70s in Sarajevo. “I haven’t voted for a long time.”

Preliminary results are expected several hours after the polls close at 7pm (17:00 GMT).

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies