Free & Fair through American Eyes:
Does it Apply to Bosnia?

By Erica Agiewich

On the weekend of September 11-12, 1998, Bosnia-Herzegovina (BiH) held its fourth set of elections since the Dayton Peace Accords were signed. The 1995 Accords mandated that the Bosnian elections be organized by the Provisional Electoral Commission (PEC), a multi-ethnic administrative body with Bosniak, Croatian, and Serbian representatives; the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE); and NATOís Stabilization Forces, SFOR. The first national elections in 1996 were so riddled with fraud that for the municipal and Republika Srpska (RS) elections the following year, the OSCE decided to assign an international election supervisor to each polling station for the entire weekend of voting. The 1997 elections ran relatively smoothly and the OSCE did not anticipate major problems with the national elections that were held this year. The OSCE again invited international supervisors back to monitor, and I served in an absentee polling station in Belgrade, Yugoslavia. Unfortunately, in most regards, the 1998 elections were a huge step backward from the elections held last fall.

The first major problem was that the evening before the elections were to begin, OSCE headquarters experienced computer problems and the OSCE could not print out the Final Voter Registrars (FVRs) for a number of polling stations. These polling stations had to delay opening the doors until Saturday afternoon and, in some cases, Sunday. At one of the largest polling stations in Sarajevo, there was a line of 2,000 voters waiting at 10:00 am on Saturday morning when the doors finally opened three hours late. It is inexcusable that the OSCE could not provide them to in-country stations on time nor have a more solid plan for the printing and distributing of the voter lists.

Second, the complexity of these elections was overwhelming for most voters. There were two national races, two entity level races, 10 ballots for the different Federation cantons, and one ballot for the RS. In addition, there were 13 municipal elections for municipalities still under dispute last year when the municipal elections were held. The two national and entity level races were all printed on one ballot in very small typeface. More often than not, voting became a group effort as voters struggled to decipher the ballot. Moreover, the OSCE designed the 600,000 absentee ballots to be counted by a computer scanner and the ballots were printed in hard-to-read blue and red ink. This was not the only problem with the absentee ballots. The ballots had to be filled out in pencil and most voters regarded this with suspicion. They believed that their ballots would be erased and changed at the OSCE office in Sarajevo. Assurances that only international supervisors would handle the ballots were openly scorned. Many voters insisted on voting in pen, effectively spoiling and wasting their ballots.

The most serious problem was that the national races were designed by the PEC to guarantee equal representation of the three ethnic groups at the expense of the votersí freedom to choose. At the national level, voters elect three presidents to a presidential committee, and the candidate with the most votes becomes "chairperson" of the committee. Voters also elect a national parliament. Since BiH is a confederation comprised of two entities ó the Federation and Republika Sprksa - voters further elect entity level presidents and assemblies. In a departure from previous elections, this year the PEC limited party eligibility in the national elections to the dominant ethnic parties from each entity. Only Serb candidates and Serb parties could run for the national presidential committee and parliament in the RS, and only Bosniak and Croatian candidates and parties were eligible to run for election in the Federation. This meant, for example, that a Serb candidate from Sarajevo was disallowed from running for the national presidency. Alternately, a candidate from a Croatian political party in the RS capital of Banja Luka was not eligible to run for the national assembly, though he or she could run for the entity level assembly. The OSCE allegedly did not support the PECís decision, but allowed the elections to continue. This policy apparently was made to "guarantee"" equal representation for each ethnic group in the presidential committee and national parliament - and probably discourage fraud at the national level. Nevertheless, it is a questionable decision and sets a dangerous precedent for elections in other multi-ethnic states.

In addition to the 2,500 polling stations throughout BiH, the OSCE provides Out-of-Country (OCV) polling stations for absentee voters in Croatia and FRY for Bosnian refugees who cannot return home to vote (for financial or political reasons), and these voters felt the largest impact of this decision. A large percentage of Bosnian-Serb refugees are from the Federation and the majority of Croatian and Muslim refugees are from the area that is now Republika Srpska. Voter registration is based on the 1991 census, so refugees and displace persons are required to vote in the elections for the town they lived in before the war, regardless of where he or she presently reside.

In FRY, where the majority of Bosnian-Serb refugees live, the voters were unaware of the restrictions placed on the national election. This led to some very tense and disturbing scenes in the OCV polling stations when voter after voter took his or her ballot, disappeared behind the polling screen, and reappeared five minutes later thoroughly confused and asking why there were no Serb candidates on the ballot. The polling station staff and/or international monitor then had to explain that due to a decision made in Sarajevo, the voter could not support a Serb for president. Instead, the voter had to choose between Croatian and Muslim candidates ó the very same people, in the votersí eyes, who killed their families and drove them out of their country. Many voters became agitated and either spoiled the ballots or refused to vote. The Bosnian-Serb refugees from the RS did not face this problem because there were only Serb parties and candidates on the RS ballot. Many Serb voters from the Federation wanted to vote for a Serb so they tried to vote on an RS ballot. This led to widespread fraud throughout FRY as voters either used false IDs to get RS ballots or were allowed by sympathetic polling station staff to sign for a RS voter who had not yet voted and cast an RS ballot.

Thus, in the OCV polling stations, the negative aspects of the elections were exacerbated and many of the international monitors felt like accomplices in a politically orchestrated plot. The refugee voters were probably uninformed of the candidate lists because the PEC seemingly sacrificed the refugees as part of deal to preserve the current ethnic division of the country. The OSCE is not sure whether the votersí ignorance was due to lack of information or misinformation because disseminating electoral information in FRY is the responsibility of the Commissariat charged with taking care of the BiH refugees, not the OSCE. Regardless, voters ended up waiting in line for hours to reach the polling booth only to find out that there were no candidates they could support. Then it was up to the international monitors to explain the situation. At the post-election debriefing for the OSCE mission in Belgrade, many international monitors expressed their dissatisfaction with the way that the PEC and OSCE handled the elections. The monitors were powerless to make any positive changes during the elections and instead had to enforce policies that we did not agree with.

While the international monitors were frustrated and upset with the situation, the Belgrade experience also made many of us see how traditional ideas of democracy: of right and wrong, of free and fair, donít always apply and cannot always be upheld in other countries and other situations. The fact that the OSCE FRY mission has its office in the Hotel Jugoslavie, which is owned by Arkan, one of the most notorious warlords of the Bosnian war, is illuminating. The OSCE needs a central and affordable headquarters, and in a country suffering from extreme economic hardship, options are limited. It is, literally, a case of sleeping with the enemy. While this may be acceptable to get office space, how much should the international community compromise to ensure the integrity of purportedly democratic elections? The OSCE is commissioned to help BiH hold free and fair elections. The 1998 elections were not free and fair however because the decision-makers decided that preserving the ethnic division and guaranteeing equal representation of the ethnic groups outweighed the importance of electoral choices.

Obviously Bosniaís political structure is unique and delicate and perhaps the PEC and OSCE made the right decision. Granted, if given the choice between a Serb candidate and a Croatian or Muslim candidate, a Serb would probably vote for a Serb. The disturbing aspect of this is that the international community tacitly supported the partition under the guise of democratic elections and publicly touted the elections as "free and fair."

Erica Agiewich received her M.A. from the University of Washington in International Studies with a regional focus on Russia, Eastern Europe and Central Asia in 1994.

For information from the Oganization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, see their website.