Democracy and division

Bosnia's municipal elections suffering from ungovernable constituencies in a war

By Timothy Donais | 1997-11-01 12:00:00

IN MID-1992, the Muslim inhabitants of the eastern Bosnian town of Visegrad were among the first victims of a policy that later became known as ethnic cleansing. Those who weren't killed outright and tossed over Visegrad's famous Ottoman bridge into the Drina River were rounded up and sent fleeing westward. Even today, nearly two years after the Dayton Peace Agreement ended Bosnia's war and offered hope to the country's two million displaced persons of finally being able to go home, towns such as Visegrad remain effectively 'cleansed'. But while its population has been monoethnically Serb for over five years now, Visegrad's new regional government is decidedly multiethnic - with Muslim candidates having been elected to nearly half the seats in the region's new municipal assembly.

Bosnia's municipal elections - which finally took place in mid-September after several postponements - have added a new twist to the country's already surreal political geography. Heavy absentee voting by refugees and internally displaced people will mean that in municipalities across Bosnia, ethnic groups that are no longer represented in the population will have significant representation in, and in some cases may even dominate, newly-elected municipal assemblies.

Whether Visegrad's new Muslim councillors will ever be allowed to take their seats remains an open question, however. While the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the international body responsible for the elections, has declared that new municipal assemblies will not be certified until they have convened with representation from at least one elected councillor from each party or coalition, in many cases nothing less than NATO armoured personnel carriers will be required to install new representatives in their seats. As one Serb politician in the town of Srebrenica, whose new municipal council could well be dominated by Muslims, told Agence France Presse: "I don't think it would be possible for any Muslims to sit on the municipal councils. The first night they come back, it means fighting."

The upcoming struggle over the installation of multicultural municipal assemblies reveals just how little progress has been made since the end of the Bosnian conflict towards undoing the results of wartime ethnic cleansing. The fact that many newly-elected politicians will not even be able to visit their constituencies, let alone exercise legislative authority in them, underscores the reality that only a handful of displaced Bosnians have actually been able to return to their pre-war homes since the conflict ended. To be an ethnic minority in Bosnia remains a dangerous proposition: displaced people attempting to visit their former homes are regularly confronted by angry mobs, while ethnic nationalists in some communities have attempted to pre-empt refugee returns by destroying the homes of former residents. Generous economic incentives being offered to communities in return for accepting returning refugees have achieved little success, and NATO peacekeepers in Bosnia have so far been unwilling to use their military muscle to protect returnees.

The ongoing dilemma of Bosnia's displaced also reveals the critical contradiction at the heart of the Dayton peace agreement. While the agreement essentially legitimized the creation of ethnically-pure territories - including Serb-controlled 'Republika Srpska' - on Bosnian soil, it also asserted the right of refugees and internally displaced people to return to their original homes. Since the return of refugees would once again render most of Bosnia ethnically 'impure', these twin pillars of the Dayton agreement simply don't add up. The end result, in electoral terms, has been an odd compromise between voting for home and actually going home: while electoral rules strongly encouraged displaced people to vote for their pre-war constituencies, the odds of most of those voters ever returning to live in their pre-war homes remain slim.

A major reason for this state of affairs lies with the fact that ethnicity remains the sole relevant criteria of social organization across post-war Bosnia. While non-nationalist parties achieved limited success in capturing municipal assemblies in larger centres such as Tuzla, Bosnia's three main nationalist parties continue to dominate the country's political landscape. For example, in municipalities such as Maglaj, a Muslim-majority region in central Bosnia, the coalition led by Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic's increasingly Muslim-nationalist Party of Democratic Action (SDA) captured some 80 per cent of the popular vote. Similarly, preliminary results from Republika Srpska show the ongoing strength of the Serb Democratic Party (SDS), led from the shadows by indicted war criminal Radovan Karadzic. Even though Karadzic himself has been banned from running from public office, his smiling face peered down from SDS campaign posters throughout Serb-controlled Bosnia, much to the despair of many in the international community.

For Bosnia's ruling nationalists, the Dayton Peace Agreement has not ended the Bosnian conflict; it has simply changed the rules of the game. As Balkans scholar Susan Woodward has noted, "elections are the means by which the parties are now waging the war." In other words, Bosnia's ethnic conflict has simply moved from the battlefield to the ballot box. With control of some 142 municipalities up for grabs, the recent municipal elections were an opportunity for Bosnia's Serbs, Croats and Muslims to consolidate or expand control over specific parcels of territory.

The dynamics of this form of electoral warfare played themselves out in particularly dramatic fashion in the disputed northwestern town of Brcko, strategically positioned along a narrow land corridor dividing the two halves of Republika Srpska. A Muslim-majority town before the war, Serb forces captured Brcko early in the war and expelled the town's Muslim residents. Fearing loss of political control over Brcko's municipal council as a result of heavy absentee voting by the town's former residents, therefore, Serb authorities in Brcko spent much of this past summer attempting to pack voter registration lists in Brcko with Serb voters displaced from other areas.

While Bosnia's Serbs and Croats have been attempting, through means both fair and foul, to hang on electorally to the territory they control as a result of the Dayton agreement, Bosnia's Muslims have viewed municipal elections as an opportunity to regain a political foothold in former Muslim-majority areas. For many Muslims, winning control over municipalities such as Srebrenica would represent a significant step forward in what promises to be a long struggle to alter the territorial division of Dayton.

Virtually lost in all the ethnic politicking around the municipal elections has been any notion of ethnic reconciliation or any attempt to recreate the multicultural Bosnia that existed before the war. Rather than unite Bosnians of all ethnic stripes around common political institutions, last year's national elections and last month's municipal elections have instead further hardened ethnic divisions. Within Bosnia's Muslim-Croat federation, for example, the result of the municipal elections will be a patchwork of Muslim-controlled and Croat-controlled territories. In a federation where most Croat residents already use a different currency, drive cars with different licence plates, and fly a different flag from their Muslim neighbours, such an outcome is hardly likely to lead to greater ethnic integration.

While no one expected the power of ethnic nationalism to simply disappear in the aftermath of the Dayton Peace Accord, some analysts have suggested that Bosnia's electoral rules have contributed to further ethnic polarization within the country. The International Crisis Group, for example, has argued that the mutually-reinforcing cycle of inter-ethnic fear which still prevails in Bosnia compels voters to cast ballots for their own nationalists, which most view as the only source of protection against the tyranny of the nationalists in opposing ethnic camps. The ICG has suggested that in future elections, the proportion of seats to be held by each ethnic group should be allocated in advance on the basis of population distribution, and that every voter be allowed to cast ballots for candidates of each ethnic group. Rather than the current system in which candidates can be elected to office solely on the support of their own ethnic group, the system proposed by the ICG would require successful candidates to appeal to voters of all ethnicities. By rewarding political moderates, such a system might represent one of the few hopes of eventually breaking Bosnia's ongoing cycle of mutually-exclusive ethnic nationalism, and of allowing Bosnia's displaced population to one day return home.

Timothy Donais is a graduate student in political science at Toronto's York University.

Peace Magazine Nov-Dec 1997

Peace Magazine Nov-Dec 1997, page 6. Some rights reserved.

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