News | State / Democracy - Political Parties / Election Analyses - Europe - Southeastern Europe Local Elections in Bosnia and Herzegovina

Out with the Old and in with the New Old?

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People wait in line at a poling station in Banja Luka, Bosnia, Sunday, Nov. 15, 2020. Polls opened at Bosnian local elections, where over 3 million voters will have the right to choose their local mayors and city hall parliaments members. Despite the huge number in positive cases and deaths from covid in Bosnia, thousands of people have flocked the polling stations early Sunday, wishing to choose their local leaders for next four years.  picture alliance / ASSOCIATED PRESS | Radivoje Pavicic

When one thinks of the politics of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the first associations are likely war, ethnic cleansing, and a political system so convoluted and dysfunctional it would make the characters in Terry Gilliam’s satiric film Brazil blush. Since the end of the war in 1995 with the signing of the Dayton Peace Accords by Alija Izetbegović, Franjo Tuđman, and Slobodan Milošević, drafted and facilitated by then-US Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke, Bosnia and Herzegovina has been governed by a consociational power-sharing structure that divides the country into six different levels of government along ethnic lines.

Emin Eminagić works as a project manager at the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung’s Southeast Europe Office in Tuzla, Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The state is the highest body of government, with three Presidents, one for each of the constituent peoples—Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats—which divides into two entities and one administrative district. The two entities are the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (FBiH) and the Republika Srpska (RS) and one administrative district in the city of Brčko (BC) on the northeastern border of Bosnia, which serves as a corridor for both entities into Croatia and Serbia, respectively, and abides by its own tax code. The Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina is further divided into ten different cantons, each constructed as small states with various ministries and capitals in larger cities. The Republika Srpska, on the other hand, is centralized and has two administrative centres in the cities of Banja Luka and Bjeljina. Below this level of government in both entities are municipalities. These municipalities are in turn divided into local communities.

On 15 November 2020, the seventh local elections since the end of the war were held in Bosnia and Herzegovina with over 114 registered political parties and 425 candidates for mayoral and city council positions. Despite the going pandemic, turnout was 38.8 percent, which in comparison to previous years demonstrates a slight.

Although Bosnia and Herzegovina has felt the impact of the pandemic quite hard, with over 24,000 registered cases since February 2020 and over 2,000 people dead, local elections nevertheless took place under strict hygienic-epidemiological measures. Poll stations closed at 19:00, as is the usual practice, and initial results were announced only two hours later. 

Who Are the “New Old” in the Country’s Politics?

When discussing the elections, one could focus on the usual formula by analysing what promises were made, how many people were mobilized, how long the campaigns of each party or candidate lasted, what the popular opinions were, etc. However, there are people far more competent people to answer these statistical questions. Instead, I will look at the political landscape in Sarajevo, Banja Luka, and Tuzla, where, as former strongholds of the Party for Democratic Action (a conservative Bosniak Party founded by the first president of Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1991, Alija Izetbegović, now presided over by his son Bakir Izetbegović) and the Alliance of Independent Social Democracts (a conservative Serb Party ruling out of Banja Luka and run by Milorad Dodik, who currently is one of the three Presidents of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the changes in government are most evident, and give an overview of the “New Old” stakeholders in local governments.

Sarajevo

It makes sense to start with the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the city of Sarajevo. Sarajevo counts nine municipalities, eight of which had been held by the SDA. Now a broad coalition known as “The Four” (Četvorka)—consisting of the liberal Naša stranka (NS), the social-democratic Socijaldemokratska Partija (BiH-SDP), the right-leaning conservatives Narod i pravda (NIP), and the independent Nezavisna Lista (NL)—has managed to take over four of Sarajevo’s nine municipalities, with demands for recounts ongoing in three.

  • The municipality of Centar was won by the NIP with 4,122 votes.
  • Novo Sarajevo was also won by the NIP with 5,623 votes, followed by their coalition partner NS with 3,241 votes.
  • Stari grad was won by the NL by 1,502 votes, while their coalition partner NIP came in third with 1,120 votes.
  • Ilidža was won by the SDA in the total vote count, although The Four secured the mayoral and city council with a total of 10,565 votes.
  • In Novi grad, SDA president Bakir Izetbegović proclaimed victory two hours after the polls closed, and was contested by NIP and is currently in recount.
  • The Municipality of Ilijaš was won by the SDA, but the NIP is contesting the vote and demanding a recount.
  • Hadžići is also currently in recount.
  • Trnovo was won by the SDA.
  • Vogošća was also won by the SDA.

The defeat of the SDA in four major municipalities in Sarajevo demonstrates a major shift in party power in Bosnia and Herzegovina’s capital city. However, this shift comes at a price if we look at the leader of coalition, the NIP. Narod i Pravda was founded by former Prime Minister of the Canton of Sarajevo, Elmedin Konaković, upon his departure from the SDA, taking several former high-ranking members of the SDA with him. NIP is a party of social conservativism, with sexist and chauvinist tendencies and a neoliberal approach to development, who advocate the deregulation and defunding of public services and believe that cities and municipalities should be run like companies. Back in 2019, Elmedin Konaković was the only high-ranking politician in Bosnia and Herzegovina to openly condemn the first Pride parade, claiming it made a laughing stock of the traditional family and endangered the country’s moral values.

Thus, as much as the victory represents a paradigm shift in Sarajevo and de facto dethroning the SDA, it begs the question of what, if anything, will be different? If we have a new SDA just under a different guise, which instrumentalized voters of their natural political opponents from the centre-left and the liberals, can we really speak of social change and progressive policies in the cities, or is it just the status quo in new clothes?

Banja Luka

Perhaps the most interesting event in Republika Srpska was the victory of Draško Stanivuković, a member of the Party for Democratic Progress (PDP), as the youngest mayor in recent Bosnian history. Stanivuković is a career politician who gained notoriety through his populism and constant agitation of MPs in the Republika Srpska and inciting fights in the parliamentary assembly.  

Stanivuković’s political positions reflect a strong pro-EU and pro-NATO stance, while maintaining a firm Serbian identity. As mayor of Banja Luka he promises utility subsidies for retirees and students (heating, electricity, etc.), which was met with dismay by Milorad Dodik and the SNSD, who stated that the SNSD would not support any of the promises made by Stanivuković to the citizens of Banja Luka.

Stanivuković is a polarizing figure in Bosnian politics. On the one hand he is popular with many Bosniaks as he stands firmly against Dodik, but is himself tied up in controversies such as taking pictures with far-right activists.

Tuzla

In the city of Tuzla, the political situation after the elections remains unchanged. Jasmin Imamović won the election for mayor, making him the longest-serving mayor in Bosnia and Herzegovina. He took office back in 2001, succeeding Selim Bešlagić as the 31st  mayor of Tuzla. He won all local communities in Tuzla with 6,953 votes. However, the remainder of Tuzla Canton remains under the control of the SDA.

Noteworthy policies and changes he brought about in Tuzla include overturning the privatization of public property such as public utilities (electricity, water supply, heating as well as public spaces for markets). Currently, Imamović claims to be working on plans to strengthen small and mid-sized enterprises and create economic development by bringing foreign direct investment to Tuzla and turning the former industrial powerhouse into a tourist destination.

The Omnipresent Fathers Are Back

A few years ago, I wrote about the general elections in Bosnia and Herzegovina, stating that the omnipresent father was gone. What we witnessed during these elections was a minor shift, with new omnipresent fathers returning to the dismay of the people. The uncertainty and social insecurity now more evident than ever did indeed effect change in some of the most important cities of Bosnia and Herzegovina. However, we will not see real change in terms of social security—the COVID-19 pandemic response remains still in shambles, hospitals are failing along with the educational system, and the citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina are suffering. No promises, not even on the discursive level, were made about how to handle the fallout of the pandemic, there was no mention of social policies or what the parties would do to stop the brain drain to the West. Instead, the country looks up towards the omnipresent fathers, returning as though they will be able to fix everything.