SARAJEVO – Polls opened Sunday in Bosnia for a general election that is unlikely to bring any substantial change despite palpable disappointment in the small, ethnically divided Balkan country with the long-established cast of sectarian political leaders.
The election includes races for various levels of government that are part of one of the world’s most complicated institutional set-ups agreed upon in a U.S.-sponsored peace agreement, which ended more than 3½ years of bloodshed in the 1990s between Bosnia’s three main ethnic groups: Muslim Bosniaks, Orthodox Serbs and Catholic Croats.
The peace agreement divided the country into two highly independent governing entities — one run by Serbs and the other shared by Bosniaks and Croats. The two have broad autonomy but are linked by shared, national institutions. All countrywide actions require consensus from all three ethnic groups.
On Sunday, voters are choosing the three members of the shared Bosnian presidency — parliamentary deputies at the state, entity and regional levels; and the president of the country’s Serb-run part.
Voting began at 7 a.m. (0500 GMT; 1 a.m. EDT) and will continue until 7 p.m. (1700 GMT; 1 p.m. EDT).
In the election, the traditional ruling class is being challenged by parties which, despite ideological differences and sometimes clashing agendas, share the campaign promise to eradicate the nationalists’ patronage networks and stop mismanagement of public resources and squandering of public funds.
“My generation grew up in a country riddled with problems, I think the time is ripe for a positive change,” said 23-year-old Denis Paralovic after casting his ballot in Sarajevo.
Mihajlo Vracic, a Sarajevo retiree, echoed the sentiment, using a local phrase referencing a good standard of living: “We finally have some honest candidates on the ballot, and I hope that the people will vote for them because, if they don’t, we can forget about eating with a golden spoon.”
In Banja Luka, the de facto capital of the Serb-run part of the country, retiree Gordana Nagradic said she hoped the election will lay the groundwork for “the arrival of freedom, the rule of law and order, when the (government) institutions, and not specific people, will govern.”
Bosnians of all ethnicities say they want representatives who will maintain peace and improve the economy and public services, but the sectarian post-war system of governance leaves pragmatic, reform-minded people in the country with little incentive to vote and the low turnout has historically benefited divisive tribal leaders. Turnout at midday on Sunday was 14% or three percentage points up from the 2018 general election.
While candidates and parties running in this election on the promise to step up the fight against rampant corruption are likely to be competitive in some of the races, analysts predict the long-entrenched nationalists who have enriched cronies and ignored the needs of the people are likely to remain dominant after the vote.
Bosnian Serb political leader Milorad Dodik is running for president of Bosnia’s Serb-run part and has used the election campaign to champion a secessionist agenda and Russia’s war in Ukraine. After one of his last preelection rallies, Dodik, who traveled to Moscow this month to secure the Russian president's explicit endorsement, said the Serbs will “cooperate with leaders who respect international law, such as Vladimir Putin” and split from the rest of Bosnia taking with them “our 49% of the territory.”
Bosnia’s 1992-1995 war — with a death toll of nearly 100,000 — started when Serbs who accounted for about a third of the population tried to dismember it and unite the territories they claimed for their own with neighboring Serbia.
To lure voters and avoid uncomfortable questions about their records in office, the dominant Croat and Bosniak parties have also embraced in their campaigns Dodik’s saber-rattling strategy, with the former threatening to gridlock the country if their candidate for the Croat seat on the tripartite presidency doesn't win the vote.
Since the end of the conflict, Moscow has often been accused by the West of seeking to destabilize the country and the rest of the Balkans through its Serb allies in the region, and there are growing fears the Kremlin might attempt to reignite the conflict in Bosnia to deflect attention from its campaign in Ukraine.