Bosnia and Herzegovenia

October 21, 2010 § 1 Comment

BosniaWho lives there?: Less than five million people. Officially just under 50% are Bosnians (primarily Muslims), 35% are Serbians (primarily eastern Orthadox) and 15% are Croats (primarily Catholic).

How does the system work? (the theory): Bosnia has a very complicated electoral system, which came out of the Dayton accords at the end of the war – and is designed to give each ethnicity equal influence and build consensus. All the elections are conducted under closed list Sainte-Lague PR (technically it is actually done using mixed-member “top up” PR, but as the voter just votes once – for a party- and as no distinction is drawn between direct and indirect mandates, the difference is entirely academic) – unless there is only one candidate in which case elections are run under first past the post.

Bosnia is divided into two semi autonomous entities – “The Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovenia” which is primarily ethnically Bosnian and Croat and “Republika Sprska” which is primarily ethnically Serb. The mixed district of Brcko is formally part of both, and has a degree of autonomy.

Republica Srpska

Both halves elect their own national assembly – with around 80 members each. Each half can then elect an executive premier and cabinet which has most of the executive power in the country (although such are the labyrinthine checks and balances that no one institution has that much power).

In addition they together elect a House of Representatives for Bosnia and Herzegovenia – which is the lower hose of the federal government and has 42 members: 28 elected by the Federation and 14 by the Republic. Technically the Republic’s 28 are supposed to be split 14/14 between Bosnians and Croats but this requirement seems to have fallen by the wayside as it is unenforceable.

The upper house is called the House of the Peoples. It has 15 members: 5 Bosnian, 5 Serb, and 5 Croat and its job is to make sure that no law can be passed unless all three ethnic groups agree to it. The upper house’s delegates are appointed by the upper houses of the two halves. The upper houses of the two halves are small, largely powerless, assemblies appointed by the lower houses of the two halves – but which have equal representation for each ethnic group. Thus the 83 seat Assembly of Republica Sprska elects, from among its members, a 28 seat House of Peoples of Republica Sprska, with 8 Bosnian members, 8 Serb, 8 Croat and 4 others. The Federation does likewise (although, whilst the proportions are the same, the numbers are slightly different).

The much repeated quote about “13 Prime Ministers, 14 constitutions, 14 parliaments, 14 legal systems” etc… is a little misleading – not that the system isn’t complicated enough. You can get to these numbers if you look at the powerfully autonomous regional government but the Prime Ministers do not have any real power. The quote comes from Bosnia’s Ambassador to the USA Miroslav Lajack, in the course of a speech about how unwieldy the system was.

He also said there were 5 presidents – a figure he arrived at by including the leaders of the two constituent halves. In actual fact executive power is vested in 3 presidents – one from each of the three ethnic groups. Voters in the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovenia get to choose whether they want to vote for the Croat or the Bosnian President, whilst  Republika Sprska elects the Serb president. The president who receives the most votes becomes chair of the presidential council and so has a little more power, but the idea is the three presidents move forward by consensus. Actual chairing of meetings rotates every eight months. In addition there are a great deal of checks and balances from the legislative – who have various veto powers – and any constituent half of the country can block any change proposed by the other half.

In the Federation half, Bosnians often tactically choose to vote in the Croat election rather than their own in order to ensure that the Croat candidate has more votes than the Serbian candidate. This is in part due to the fact that the Croat candidate tends to be a moderate, and tends to fight a (relatively speaking) uncontested election.

The Presidents appoint an executive cabinet – or Council of Ministers.

Finally, there is the High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina, who wields supreme executive power and can appoint and fire members of all executive bodies as they wish. They are appointed by the UN established international Peace Implementation Council and tend to be a career diplomat from an EU nation.

The Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovenia is further divided into 9 cantons, whilst Brcko and Republica Sprska are also treated as cantons. Each canton elects its own parliament which elects its own Premier who has a large degree of autonomy. Three of the cantons are considered ethnically mixed and so have further rules to ensure power sharing between ethnic groups.

The lowest level is the municipality. It is up to the canton how much power they devolve to the municipalities. However, if the municipality is dominated by an ethnic group which is a minority within the canton, then several things (including education and public services) must be devolved to that municipality. Councils are elected by list PR (remainder method, Hare quota) and they in turn elect an executive mayor.

How does the system work? (the practice): The High Representative has usually taken the view that, for the sake of Bosnian sovereignty, they should take a back-seat role and not overly interfere. Since 2008 they have been working towards abolishing themselves, although they have not done so yet. However, this has not always been the case: British former leader of the Lib Dems Paddy Ashdown (HR 2002-2006) and current Slovak Foreign Minster Miroslav Lajčák (HR 2007-2009) were exceedingly hands-on (some said high handed) in their hiring and firing of elected officials and personal taking of executive decisions.

Corruption remains a serious problem, but in general Bosnia works the way the Dayton accords intended it to. It is just that the Dayton accords allow any one group to make things very very slow indeed if it doesn’t like the way things are going.

How did we get here?: One could easily write a book on the subject – and many hundreds have. Very briefly: Bosnia was first a Slavic fiefdom and then an Ottoman Province and then part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Then Archie Duke shot an ostrich because he was hungry and WW1 kicked off. Then there was an attempt at a federal Yugoslavia, then the Nazis invaded. Then there was another attempt at a federal Yugoslavia – a socialist one this time – under Tito. That worked until the collapse of communism.

In 1990, Bosnia elected a parliament dominated by nationalists from the three main ethnic groups. As Yugoslavia started to fragment, so too did Bosnia. Serb MPs declared an independent state in January of 1992, Bosnian and Croats followed suit in February and war soon followed. Initially most Bosnian and Croat groups were allied – but by June the conflict had descended into a three way battle involving military and para-military forces.

By the time peace was finally enforced in 1996 there had been war-crimes committed on all sides, and 100,000 people had been killed.

Who’s in charge?: The results of the last election were mixed. In the main, the Bosnian parts chose conciliatory pluralist candidates whilst the Serbian and Croat parts chose nationalist. This fits in with various analysts’ views that opinions in Republica Sprska are hardening, and there is an increasing appetite to split from the Federation. However this hides a lot of the detail in the results – there were pro-moderate moves amongst Serbs and Croats too, but the nationalists grabbed the headlines.

Firstly the presidency: the Serbs re-elected hard-line pro secession Nebojsa Radmanovic. The Croats re-elected the moderate Zeljko Komsic, and as he got the most votes overall he will chair the presidential council. In the biggest surprise of the night, moderate Bakir Izetbegovic beat hard-line incumbent Haris Silajdzic for the Bosnian presidency.

Meanwhile seats in the executive seem to have not been finalised yet. However, we know from interim results that in Republica Sprska, and for the Serbian seats to other bodies, hard line virulent nationalist separatist Milorad Dodik and his SNSD were re-elected, but with a considerably reduced majority. The Croat nationalist Croat Democratic Union (HDZ) kept the top place amongst Croats but lost seats. Meanwhile amongst Bosnians the compromise Party for Democratic Action (SDA) lost their top spot due to a dramatic improvement for the multiethnic radically compromising Social Democrats (SDP) – who may well have also received a fair few votes from Croats and Serbs living in Bosnian areas. The result is that a lot of the seats in the federation have gone to “Bosnian” parties – albeit ones with a desire to be multiethnic. It is possible that Croat parties could claim this is unconstitutional, but it is likely that if they did so then the SDP would re-designate some of its seats into a nominally Croat party.

For all the hand wringing in the media, the result is broadly a continuation of the status-quo – if not a slightly better result for moderates. At every level of every government there are a mixture of hardliners and moderates who are now going to have to work together – but that was the case before. There is a problem with militant Serb nationalism in Republica Sprska – but we knew that before Sunday week.

Assuming there are not huge changes between the provisional results and the final results my Saint-Lague calculator suggests the result in the House of Representatives will be: SDP 8, SNSD 8, SDA 6, SBB (Bosnian moderate) 4, HDZ 4, SDS (Serbian old fashioned conservatives) 4, Stranka Bosnia (leftist multi ethnic Bosnian) 2, HSP (Croat conservative) 2, Narodna (Croat moderate conservative) 2, PDP (Serb Conservative) 1, DNS (Serb Conservative)1:

Bos part

The results in the Federation and Republic assemblies were broadly in line with the bottom and top of this diagram respectively.

What does it look like?: Much of Bosnia is near the sea, but thin strips of Croatia mean Bosnia only has a 16km coastline. Inland there are high hills in the centre, low hills in the north west and arable flatland in the north east. There is a reasonable amount of forest and in general the landscape is gentle and green. The many different cultures that have come and gone meat that there are all sorts of architectural styles in evidence.


What are the issues?: As might be guessed – ethnic concerns. In general, the Serbian discourse is nationalist and right wing. Some Serbs feel threatened and that they are picked on (2 against 1 with the Bosnians and Croats, and by the international community). In part it is also due to the FDR-style switch that happened at independence, whereby the old socialist parties became the new nationalist parties (and many still have socialist in their name) and thus removed the political space for moderates.

Many Serbs think the only way they are going to get proper autonomy is with an independent state – or by joining Serbia. This is the platform with which the SNSD rose to power. However, whilst it is internally important that they use nationalist rhetoric, the number of senior officials who actually think this is viable are a sub-set of the whole. And whilst it might not be politically expedient to directly challenge them on the nationalist question, there are mnay other parties in Serbia who do not favour this route.

As befits the plurality ethnicity, Bosnians tend to be the least threatened by nationalist divisions, and the most inclined to vote for pluralist parties. Bosnian parties, in general, press for closer integration, modernisation, and hope to join the EU soon. It is also amongst Bosnian parties that more traditional left-right politics has started to reassert itself, and where ethnic lines have first started to blur: with Croats and, to a lesser extent, Serbs voting across ethnic lines for moderate Bosnians.

The Croat community is the most split on the nationalist issue. There is a fear amongst some that the two-unit structure is leading to Croat autonomy and identity being subsumed into a Bosnian identity. There are others that favour closer integration with Bosnians to make it “two against one” with the Serbs. And finally there are some genuine tripartite pluralists.

However you will still find people in Bosnia of every ethnicity who express every possible combination of these views.

The main problem is that Bosnia is now more ethnically divided than it has ever been – as a result of internal migration and ethnic cleansing. These two maps show how ethnically diverse Bosnia was in 1991, and how homogeneous it is now (or by 2006):



A good source of impartial information is: there is a good free press, but much of it is in Serbo-Croat, and nationalist discourse tends to dominate the Serbian media. Balkan insight is the best I’ve found in English.

A good book is: There are thousands of books on the subject, so it depends what you are looking for. Here are just a few which offer something different:

I met someone who was once told by a former UN Secretary General that there is only one book which will teach you anything at all about politics anywhere in the Balkan peninsula and that is King Ottokar’s Sceptre (Tintin).

Intelligence and the War in Bosnia 1992-1995 has been dismissed as conspiracy theory by some, and Serb propaganda by others. However, it was written by a respected political scientist (Prof Cees Wiebes), who was given access to much secret intelligence, and attempted to write an impartial history of the conflict. He insists it is an entirely neutral work which criticizes both sides – and only seems pro Serb in that it is not as willing to ignore Bosnian and Croat transgressions as other works have been.

Swords And Ploughshares: Building Peace in the 21st Century is Paddy Ashdown’s thoughts on his time as High Representative in Bosnia. He has a unique politicians insight into the system, as well as having spent more time with the detail of Bosnian politics than almost anybody else.

To get a more human feel on Bosnia, there is a wealth of personal testimony and fiction. As with all large tragedies, this varies from the truly moving to the mawkish. Joe Sacco’s graphic novel Safe Area Gorazde: The War in Eastern Bosnia 1992-95 and Emir Kusturicas film Life Is A Miracle are the best works I’ve come across.

When are the next elections?: The next general elections are in 2014, municipal elections will be in 2012.


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