Bosnia's Election: A Tool to Divide or Unify?

by Erica Agiewich

I was an international election supervisor in both Bosnia's Municipal and Republika Srpska (RS) Assembly elections. For the Municipal elections, I was stationed in an "ethnically cleansed" Croatian village outside the town of Vitez in the Federation, about an hour and a half from Sarajevo. For the RS elections, I was stationed in a village near the town of Modrica, right on the Interethnic Boundary Line (IEBL). As an election supervisor, I was responsible for working with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), local election commission and SFOR to make sure that my polling station had all the equipment and staff it needed to operate, to supervise the actual polling process itself, including the counting of the vote, to resolve disputes at the station, and to monitor the security situation at the station.

Two years after the signing of the Dayton Accords, Bosnia-Herzegovina (BiH) remains a paradoxical and divided country. Despite the bombed out buildings, life appears to proceed normally - kids go to school, people shop, cafes are full - but invisible barriers perpetuate the existence of three very separate worlds. Officially, the country is a confederation composed of two political entities - the Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina and Republika Srpska (RS). The two entities are separated by the Interethnic Boundary Line (IEBL) and while the borders are not controlled, few residents have reason to cross the IEBL or feel comfortable doing so. The Federation breaks down into Muslim areas and the self-proclaimed Croatian semi-state of Herceg-Bosna. In some ethnically mixed towns in the Federation, lines spray painted onto the street demarcate the Croatian and Muslim halves even though everyone already knows which half "belongs" to which group.

It follows then that elections in BiH are also unusually complicated. The Dayton Accords required the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to administer the first round of elections in post-war BiH. The OSCE originated as a forum to resolve disputes between the east and west during the Cold War. In the early 1990s, its mission became more action oriented and the OSCE became involved in the development of civil society, election observing and human rights monitoring in the former Communist bloc. In BiH the OSCE also works together with a multinational Provisional Election Committee, Local Election Commissions (LEC) in each municipality, and SFOR, which is responsible for security matters.

The first elections in post-war BiH were held in the fall of 1996. Voters elected national assemblies for each entity and the members of the tripartite presidency. The OSCE employed a number of short-term monitors who were asked to visit as many polling stations during the course of the election weekend as possible. These efforts did little to prevent fraud or defray the administrative disaster of collecting and counting election results. In response to feedback from the short-term observers, the OSCE changed tactics for the municipal elections, which were postponed until fall 1997. The OSCE held a lengthy voter registration period in the spring of 1997, and, for the first time in European history, an international registration supervisor monitored each registration office. Registration in BiH was inherently complex and controversial due to the high number of displaced persons (DPs), refugees, and the fact that the last census in BiH had been conducted before the war in 1991. The OSCE decided that voters who were 18 or older in September 1997 could register and vote according to where they had resided at the time of the census or where they were currently residing. For example, a Serb from Zenica, which is in the Federation, who is now a refugee in the RS, could have voted on a Zenica ballot or one for his new residence. If an individual could not travel to his or her hometown or was afraid to vote in person, an absentee ballot could be used.

The OSCE's decision was important to the municipal elections because the main issue the new municipal governments would be dealing with was the repatriation of refugees and housing. Many DPs still do not believe they will ever be able to or want to return to their pre-war homes and prefer to support the local politicians and/or parties on the list for their current homes. A Croat DP from Zenica who was sent to live an hour away in Vitez during a "population exchange" during the war may have wanted to support the Croatian political party in Vitez on the assumption that the party would "protect Croatian interests" in the town rather than "waste" a vote in Zenica where Muslims are favored to win the election. At the same time, another voter may have preferred to vote for his hometown in hopes that he may return there someday, especially if his party could make it safe for refugees to return. In other cases, it did not matter what the voter wanted - politicians used intimidation to force DPs and other susceptible voters to register locally to "support" the local party. This decision to allow DPs to vote for their hometown was cited as one of the reasons that the leading Croatian party in BiH decided to boycott the elections. The party did not want DPs electing Serb or Muslim politicians in Croatian controlled, a.k.a. "ethnically cleansed," areas. Only two days prior to the election, threats from the International Monetary Fund to withdraw financial support to Croatia led Croatian President Tudjman to pressure Bosnian Croat leaders back into the election.

In a major departure from typical election monitoring procedures, the OSCE deployed International Election Supervisors (IES) to supervise a polling station throughout the whole polling process, including the counting of the ballots. Over 2,500 volunteer supervisors from all 53 member states of the OSCE were assigned to polling stations throughout both halves of BiH. Polling stations could be found in schools, in the middle of a minefield, bars, private homes, bombed out libraries and gymnasiums. The number of registered voters per station ranged from 200 in remote mountain villages above the clouds to 2,000 in the cities.

The primary task of an IES was to enforce OSCE procedures and regulations, to be responsible for properly submitting necessary reporting forms following the counting of ballots, and to ensure the security of the ballots until they are delivered to SFOR. In reality, most supervisors simply played a delicate political game with the station's chairperson. Each polling station had a chairperson and local staff. The ethnic composition of the staff generally reflected that of the municipality, but the chairperson always represented the ethnic group in power in the immediate area. Generally the chairman or staff members argued one way or the other depending on how the outcome would affect their party or ethnic group. Sometimes it benefited a chairperson to follow the OSCE policies and sometimes not. Depending on the situation and/or audience, the OSCE was either an intruding foreign nuisance or a benevolent friend - more often the former than latter. While the chairperson had the authority to make the final decision in many important matters, such as declaring a poorly marked ballot valid or invalid, the locals were aware that the IES and OSCE did have the power to shut down the station, in which case all the ballots would be lost. Thus, despite pockets of fraud and continued confusion over the registration criteria, the elections and its implementation were considered relatively successful by the Bosnian government and OSCE.

With less than two months to prepare, the OSCE pulled off a repeat performance with the National Assembly elections of Republika Srpska (RS). Early in the summer, President of the Assembly, Biljana Plavsic, became involved in a power struggle with the supporters of Radovan Karadzic who, as an indicted war criminal, is prohibited from holding elected office. Plavsic dissolved the Assembly and new elections were held at the end of November. Under clear skies and in freezing cold temperatures, the OSCE again deployed supervisors to all corners of the RS. Since most polling station staff and supervisors had served during the September elections, these elections went fairly smoothly. Nevertheless, the results of the election and the OSCE's role in the elections reflect the paradoxical nature of the country. The west and the OSCE blatantly supported Plavsic, but she was seen by many Serbs as a western puppet and lost the elections. Karadzic's party, under the official leadership of a politician censured by the OSCE for nationalist remarks only two weeks before the elections, won by a clear margin. However, it came up three seats short of forming a majority coalition and registered a complaint with the OSCE alleging fraud in the vote count. Ironically, if Plavsic had won, it is likely that her opponents would have alleged fraud and not recognized the election results due to "foreign interference."

Whether the newly elected municipal level or national level politicians are interested in resolving some of the pressing issues, albeit housing or issuing a uniform license plate and currency, is highly doubtful. Despite the relative success of the recent elections, monitors on both sides of the IEBL can tell an anecdote or two about how their chairperson was more than willing to bend rules to benefit a voter sympathetic to his or her party or how a few extra ballots mysteriously appeared in the box during a short lunch break. The country has the ability to run elections without western support, but they would not be fair elections. And, granted that the presence of foreign organizations such as the OSCE and SFOR contributes to the confusing nature of the country and is highly resented, it is imperative that these organizations remain for the near future. The peace in BiH is still too unstable and the need to resolve the refugee and housing issues still too pressing for the west to allow any slippage in the slight progress that has been made so far. Elections are a small step towards stabilization, but at this point every step towards breaking down the barriers and enabling people to return home is crucial.

Erica Agiewich received her M.A. in International Studies with a regional focus on Russia, Eastern Europe and Central Asia in 1994. She recently returned from nearly two years in Romania where she first was on a Fulbright research grant and then worked at the American Embassy on a Fascell Fellowship.