Sign outside Mostar, Bosnia // Photo by Dennis Jarvis

A Big Election in Bosnia Brings More…Stasis

Bosnians went to the polls on Sunday amidst growing frustrations with the government over deadlock and poor economic opportunity. While the election presented the chance to alter the direction of the country, results so far demonstrate that change is much harder to come by as unresolved tensions from its civil war remains.

Nearly 20 years after the Bosnian War ended, the country is often referred to as “the most over-governed country in the world.” Multiple layers of government at the local, provincial and national level – often divided among Bosnia’s three main ethnic groups – has led to unprecedented levels of bureaucracy that leads to a lot of process, but few results. Unemployment remains persistently high with the official unemployment level in 2013 at 44%, but youth unemployment remains over 60%. Frustration with this led to major protests across the country in February, but few concessions by the government to address the key sources of anger.

In many ways, Bosnians appear to have accepted that things will not change. Despite the renewed attention the protests brought to the problems facing the country, election turnout was lower for Sunday’s election than in 2010. Likewise, the three main nationalist parties – the Muslim Party of Democratic Action (SDA), the Croatian Democratic Union (HZD), and Serb Democratic Party (SDS) – continue to dominate the election results as they have since the war ended in 1995.

The lead politicians vying for the three-person presidency highlight just how divided Bosnia remains. Bakir Izetbegovic, son of Bosnia’s first president Alija Izetbegovic and head of the SDA, campaigned on a stronger, unified Bosnian state. Dragan Covic of the HZD campaigned for the creation of a separate Croat entity within Bosnia to appeal to the smallest of the three major groups who increasingly feel overshadowed by Bosniaks within the Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Both politicians have claimed victory already while the election for who will hold the Serb seat within the presidency is still undecided. For once the Serb opposition has the chance to dislodge the ruling SDS in the national presidency but general Bosnian Serb sentiments still seem to lean towards the breakaway of the Serb Republic.

Thus after 20 years, Bosnia remains in much the same predicament it was when the Dayton Peace Accords were being negotiated. Change is greatly needed but in such a highly charged environment, Bosnians are still scared of what change may bring. Sunday’s election was seen by many as a possible turning point, but a day later is yet another missed opportunity. Without further engagement by the international community, it is unlikely Bosnia will be able to break this cycle and find the progress it desperately needs.