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Friday, 4 October, 2002, 16:14 GMT 17:14 UK
Analysis: Bosnia at the crossroads
Two Bosnian Muslim girls walk past election posters in Sarajevo
Voters choose their government for the next four years

For the first time since the Dayton Peace agreement, voters in Saturday's crucial elections in Bosnia will be choosing their governments for the next four years, instead of two.

Bosnia facts
2.35m voters
Three parliaments
13 prime ministers
40% unemployment
Another first is that the elections are being run by the Bosnian authorities, not the international community.

What the international community - and many Bosnians - fear is a return to power of the old nationalist parties who led the country to war 10 years ago.

In a series of opinion polls carried out by the US-based National Democratic Institute (NDI), Bosnians of all ethnicities put economic issues at the top of their list of concerns.

Only the Bosnian Croats - the smallest of the three main ethnic groups - said national interests were among their most important issues.

And Bosnia has a lot of economic catching up to do. It has now fallen behind Albania, warns the country director for the World Bank. In south-eastern Europe, only Moldova is poorer.

Corruption

All the major nationalist parties - the SDS for the Serbs, the HDZ for the Croats, and the SDA for the Bosniaks (Muslims) - have been tarnished by allegations of corruption, to a greater or lesser degree.

Strongest parties in post-war elections
Serb Democratic Party (SDS): Popular with Serbs
Croat Democratic Union (HDZ): Popular with Croats
Social Democratic Party (SDP): Non-nationalist, popular with Muslims
Party of Democratic Action (SDA): Popular with Muslims
Meanwhile, unemployment stands at around 40% and a UN study found nearly two-thirds of young people want to leave the country for good.

Voter apathy is widespread. An exhausted and impoverished public is mistrustful of politicians of every stripe. Analysts predict that up to a third of voters will stay away from the polls.

Part of the problem with this weekend's elections lies with the bewildering system of government.

Bosnia has no fewer than 13 prime ministers: one for the state itself; one each for the two entities that make up the post-war Bosnia (Republika Srpska and the Muslim-Croat Federation); and one for each of the 10 cantons that make up the federation.

This works out at one prime minister for every 30,000 inhabitants.

Serb exception

For the last two years, most of Bosnia has been governed by an array of more or less moderate parties known as the Alliance for Change.

They unblocked some of the legislative logjams which were holding up Bosnia's halting progress towards the next stage of European integration.

Radovan Karadzic
Karadzic's party goes down well in Republika Srpska

The exception has been in the Republika Srpska. In the last elections two years ago, voters threw out a moderate, pro-Western administration which had become embroiled in corruption scandals.

Instead, they voted in a coalition led by the hardline nationalists of the SDS, the party founded by the wartime leader of the Bosnian Serbs, Radovan Karadzic. Its record of economic achievement is dubious.

Earlier this year, the European Commission's customs watchdog accused the Bosnian Serb customs administration of running an organised mafia, skimming off $15m in lost revenues from the government treasury. The head of the customs administration, an SDS official, resigned.

Fear factor

This time, the SDS looks set to strengthen its performance at the polls, although it is unlikely to capture enough votes to govern alone. However, it is likely to win the Serb seat on Bosnia's tripartite state presidency.


If the non-nationalists do retain control over some levels of government, it will only be by the narrowest of margins

The SDS candidate, Mirko Sarovic, has pledged to resist a unitary state, protecting the autonomy of the Republika Srpska.

But the frontrunner for the Bosniak seat, wartime Prime Minister Haris Silajdzic, wants to do away with the post-war division of Bosnia.

The latest polls show a mixed picture: if the non-nationalists do retain control over some levels of government, it will only be by the narrowest of margins. But the nationalists still have a strong base of support.

Part of the problem lies with the fear factor. People who would like to vote for non-nationalist parties worry their vote will not count, if everyone else divides along ethnic lines. This is less true than in the past, but still a worry.

Bosnia is making progress: the shelling has stopped, and from that, everything else can follow.

The trouble is that it is following so very slowly. Not just the international community but Bosnians as well may give up in disgust.

See also:

15 Jul 02 | Europe
27 Aug 02 | Europe
01 Jul 02 | Europe
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