Bosnia’s multi-ethnic moderate party was the big winner in October elections, but the lack of viable coalition partners has left the playing field open once again to ethno-nationalist parties who are bent on maintaining politically opportunistic instability.
By Anes Alic for ISN Insights.
Three ethno-nationalist parties and one moderate, multi-ethnic party are likely to form the next government of Bosnia-Herzegovina, despite the fact that all four have been the fiercest of rivals over the past four years, due largely to personal animosities dangerously cloaked as ethnic ideology.
Despite a very heartening win for the moderate Social Democratic Party (SDP), the new government, once it is eventually formed early next year, looks set to be one of the most politically obstructive in the country’s post-war history. And those voters who flocked to the polls to show their dissatisfaction with the ethno-nationalists in whom they had long placed their trust will be disappointed to learn that their efforts were for naught, and the same faces will be returning to power thanks to the mathematics of coalition-building.
Last week, the Bosnian Serb ethno-nationalist party, the Alliance of Independent Social Democrats (SNSD) – which won elections in the country’s Serb-dominated entity of Republika Srpska, made overtures to its fiercest rival, the moderate SDP. Milorad Dodik, the outspoken, tension-stirring president of Republika Srpska and the leader of the SNSD, met with SDP head Zlatko Lagumdzija to discuss a coalition deal for the state government.
The two rival parties have eight elected deputies each in the state parliament’s 42-seat chamber, and could create a loose coalition of the main parties of all three ethnic communities.
The key for the formation of the new government is in the hands of Dodik and Lagumdzija, who have had a love-hate relationship for the past decade. From 2000-2002, the two parties were allies in the ruling Alliance for Change coalition government, but became enemies after Dodik and the SNSD – who had been viewed as the moderate Bosnian Serb political forces who ousted the party of wartime leader Radovan Karadzic – changed colors to become the country’s number one source for fueling ethnic tensions and political obstruction.
For the past eight years, the moderate SDP has been in the opposition, while the SNSD has been in the ruling government.
Aside from Dodik-Lagumdzija provisional announcement that they could form a coalition in order to move the country towards the EU, the two parties have no shared political agenda, and many of the disagreements center precisely on EU integration and the reforms necessary for EU membership.
Earlier, Dodik had said that his party would cooperate with any party but the SDP. Recently the Republika Srpska president has changed his views, saying that the SDP should be part of the ruling coalition, together with two other main ethno-nationalist parties, the Bosniak Party of Democratic Action (SDA) and the Croat Democratic Union (HDZ).
Weakness in strength
This would be the strongest ruling coalition in the last eight years, comprised of electoral winners from all three ethnic groups drawing on additional support from smaller parties. And while to the casual observer this may sound positive and ethnically equable, it is the worst case scenario for the new government: Such a coalition would be the least efficient and riddled with political obstruction, more so than at any time in the past.
The four-party government, despite commanding a large majority in parliament, would require a certain amount of political will and compromise to lead Bosnia out of its current deadlock – and this is lacking. The differences among the main players on almost all important questions, including constitutional reform and distribution of state assets, are immense.
With regard to many important questions, including those related to EU integration, the SDP has a starkly different attitude than the rest of these potential coalition parties. In the coming weeks, SDP and SNSD experts will meet again to discuss their views on how the country should look in the next four years. Considering the fact that the two parties do not agree on the issues the international community would like resolved first, it is unlikely that SDP and SNSD will seal the coalition deal based on anything other than political opportunism.
If the coalition deal goes through, it will mean that the SDP will be in violation all of its election promises and that it has shed principle in the name of electoral mathematics. But far more dangerous for the SDP could be a further loss of party officials and supporters, as most of the local branches are strongly opposed to allying with nationalist parties.
Though the SDP has made major gains this time around, a simple tally of votes is not necessarily the right baseline for determining victory. Indeed, it might be politically expedient for the moderates to throw in the towel and remain in the opposition rather than risk the destruction of the party.
A future of ethnic wrangling and EU integration stagnation
The conflicted views of how the future Bosnian state should look are deeply rooted in ethnic affiliation, with Bosniaks seeking a centralized state (along with the international community), Bosnian Serbs seeking to preserve their autonomy and Bosnian Croats demanding greater representation – and perhaps even a separate entity themselves. The electorate responded accordingly.
Dodik has found an unlikely ally in his quest to further destabilize Bosnia: His otherwise rival, the nationalist Bosnian Croat leader of the HDZ, Dragan Covic. Shortly after the elections, Dodik and Covic met and agreed on a joint maneuver: to block the formation of new state institutions and thereby obstruct centralization efforts that the international community is pushing.
The two have agreed to join forces on all levels, vowing that upon the formation of new state institutions, they will file a joint motion to the Parliament, demanding that the country’s electoral law be amended to create three separate ethnic electoral units – Bosniak, Bosnian Croat and Bosnian Serb. This motion is in direct response to the victory of the moderate SDP’s Zeljko Komsic for the presidency’s Bosnian Croat seat, who beat out the HDZ’s candidate, Borjana Kristo. The HDZ claims that Komsic was elected largely because of Bosniak, rather than Bosnian Croat votes, and as such he is not a valid representative of the Bosnian Croats, despite his ethnicity. Komsic remains hugely popular among large segments of the moderate population, across ethnic lines, largely because he is perceived as a humble and modest politician who has not been tainted by corruption or office scandals.
Dodik also supported the HDZ’s recently increased calls for the creation of the third entity in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where Bosnian Croats would be the majority. However, despite the Bosnian Serb leader’s accolades for the idea, he emphasized that such a third entity could only be comprised of Federation territory and could not encroach upon Republika Srpska territory.
Whoever forms the government at the state level faces serious challenges beyond addressing the delicate balance of power between the three ethnic groups, and it is clear even now that the SNSD and the HDZ, whether they remain in power or shift to the opposition, will ensure that the political crisis continues.
The EU has demanded that if Bosnia wishes to join the EU, it must create a stronger central government, which the country’s Serbs vehemently oppose, calling for peaceful dissolution. These differing visions have kept Bosnia’s government barely functional. In the past four years, EU-US initiated reforms over constitutional changes to simplify the political setup and strengthen the central government have failed miserably.
Since the last election in 2006, mistrust has grown between the ethno-nationalist parties, and political differences have widened between the Federation and Republika Srpska. The points of interest of the three ethnic groups have grown further apart, and along with this, so has EU integration hopes.
On 30 November, the international community’s High Representative to Bosnia, Valentin Inzko, said the country could gain EU candidate member status within four-to-five years. This was a severe disappointment for Bosnia’s authorities, who had promised during the campaign season to apply for candidate status by the end of this year. Though it is indeed disappointing, it is also very likely overly optimistic, especially if a new government of the likes that is now taking shape is charged with running things for the next four years.