Legislating ‘apartheid’: Critics slam Bosnia’s election law plan

Critics say the high representative’s plans will give disproportionate influence to Croat and Serb nationalists.

Christian Schmidt, European Union High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina, attends an exhibition at Srebrenica Genocide Memorial in Potocari, Bosnia and Herzegovina, February 22, 2022.
Local media reported earlier this week that Bosnia's High Representative Christian Schmidt is holding consultations with the international community to impose a new electoral law [File: Dado Ruvic/Reuters]

Plans by Bosnia’s high representative to amend the country’s election law and the federation entity’s constitution have been denounced by critics, who say it is segregationist and akin to legislating “apartheid”.

Earlier this week, local media broke the news that the Office of the High Representative (OHR), an international institution responsible for implementing Bosnia and Herzegovina’s peace agreement, is holding consultations with the international community to impose a new law regarding how delegates are chosen for the House of Peoples of the Bosniak-Croat Federation entity’s parliament.

But analysts say with these changes, the OHR would give the Croat nationalist party HDZ (the Croation Democratic Union) and nationalist secessionist Serb SNSD party (the Alliance of Social Democrats) a disproportionate degree of political influence and further deepen discriminatory ethnic divisions.

According to the reported reforms, Bosnia’s “constituent people” – Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs – will lose representatives in the House of Peoples if their ethnic population in any federation canton amounts to less than three percent of the same ethnic population in the Federation entity.

For example, the Una-Sana canton located in western Bosnia with a Croat population of 1.9 percent, would lose its delegate for the Croat caucus, and the position would instead go to a canton with a large Croat population.

This translates to HDZ getting more delegates –  at least 14 out of 17 seats in the Croat caucus – as the nationalist party rules in cantons with larger Croat populations.

With complete control over the Croat caucus, a member from the HDZ will now be guaranteed a seat as either the president or as one of the two vice-presidents of the Federation in a team with a Bosniak and a Serb selected from their respective caucuses.

Regardless of whether HDZ has a president or a vice-president for the Federation, all three ethnic constituencies are required to form the government, making the HDZ indispensable.

In the same way that HDZ will be able to rule over the Croat caucus, thus securing a position in the Federation government, the SNSD party will have the same advantage. “HDZ and SNSD will become key in forming the Federation government,” Bosnian investigative news website Istraga reported.

The Bosniak caucus meanwhile is more politically competitive and fragmented along partisan lines.

Dragan Covic, leader of Bosnia’s HDZ party, has for years pushed for changes to the election law, claiming that Croats are underrepresented in institutions.

Under the current election law, at least one Bosniak, one Croat and one Serb delegate is elected from each canton. Caucuses where there is an opposition compete as to which member they nominate for president or vice president of the Federation entity government.

Istraga reported on Monday that the Croatian government had sent the OHR a document proposing a way to amend the election law. Analysts have previously criticised Croatia for undermining Bosnia’s sovereignty by meddling in its political affairs.

With the proposed reforms, political scientist Jasmin Mujanovic said that the HDZ will block every attempt at amending Bosnia’s constitutions, as it has for more than 14 years, “while Zagreb will shield it from any meaningful repercussions from the EU.

“Except now there won’t even be the theoretical possibility of holding them to account via elections,” Mujanovic wrote on Twitter.

“The result will be further polarisation along exclusively ethnic lines, which is precisely what both the HDZ & their collaborators in the SNSD want because the big prize they’ve both been working towards is the wholesale dissolution of the Bosnian state. And this is a big step towards it.”

‘Ethnically clean administrative units’

Ismail Cidic, president of the Bosnian Advocacy Center, told Al Jazeera that the OHR’s proposed changes “mean apartheid for Bosniaks [Bosnian Muslims]”.

“Under the proposal, Bosniak votes will not have the same value as those of Bosnian Croats, who could ultimately dictate the political conditions in the country despite only comprising some 15 percent of the country’s population,” Cidic said.

“In addition, despite numerous court verdicts in their favour, Bosnia’s minorities are again overlooked. For the international community, it seems that it is still more critical to diminish Bosniak’s already limited political power than to work on securing equal rights for all, including minorities. This solution will be the last nail in the coffin of the Euro-Atlantic path for the country.”

Since the signing of the Dayton Peace Agreement – which also serves as the country’s constitution – in December 1995, the country has had a Kafkaesque political structure divided along ethnic lines.

But in numerous rulings, including the landmark Sejdic and Finci case in 2009, the European Court of Human Rights found Bosnia’s constitution to be discriminatory towards its citizens and ordered a civic constitution to be adopted with equal rights for all ethnicities, which remains to be done.

Jakob Finci, a Bosnian Jew, and Dervo Sejdic, a Bosnian Roma, addressed the court in Strasbourg, France after they were blocked from running in the elections as their ethnicity did not belong to any of the three “constituent peoples” – Bosniak, Croat or Serb.

In a video posted on Twitter on Friday by the multi-ethnic SDP party, Sejdic said that Bosnia can only prosper on civic principles based on the equality of all citizens.

“The rulings of the Court of Human Rights were not implemented, yet they are imposing new decisions on us which violate fundamental values of European and international democracy,” Sejdic said.

“Us in SDP will not allow Bosnia to be divided into ethnically-clean administrative units.

“I already proved once before that basic human rights are being violated in Bosnia and Herzegovina and I will fight for our children to be equal and for all children to be able to elect and be elected.

“I would like to remind that ethnonationalism and racism has so far driven away 500,000 citizens of our beautiful homeland,” Sejdic said.

Source: Al Jazeera