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Bosnians head to polls in vote stoked by wartime ethnic fears

Andrej Isakovic, AFP | An elderly woman waits for a bus in front of an election billboard of Sefik Dzaferovic, a member of the main Muslim SDA party, in Sarajevo on October 6, 2018
4 min

Bosnians voted Sunday for leaders of their poor and splintered nation, where politicians are still fanning the divisive nationalism that fuelled its 1990s war.


The Balkan country remains a patchwork of ethnic enclaves, with power formally divided among its three main groups: Bosnian Muslims (Bosniaks), Serbs and Croats.

While Sunday's elections will fill Bosnia's highest offices, many voters say they have lost faith in a political class accused of stoking fear to stay in power.

"I think the nationalists will win once again and nothing will change," said Armin Bukaric, a 45-year-old businessman in Sarajevo, echoing a view common on the capital's streets.

The Balkan country's multi-layered political system is a relic of the 1992-95 war that left 100,000 dead, displaced millions and wrecked the economy and infrastructure.

A quarter of a century later, Bosnia is still governed by the peace accord that stopped the fighting and sliced the country into two semi-autonomous halves -- one dominated by Serbs and the other home to Muslims and a Croat minority.

The result was competing power centres bound by a weak national government. On top sits a tripartite presidency that rotates between a Serb, Croat and Muslim member.

Divide and rule

One candidate for the Serb presidential seat, Milorad Dodik, is a pro-Russian nationalist who regularly raises the prospect of a vote on the secession of the country's Serb-dominated half.

Dodik has led the Serb-run entity Republika Srpska since 2006 and rarely sets foot in Bosnia's capital Sarajevo, which he terms a hostile "foreign territory".

Victory over incumbent Mladen Ivanic would keep Dodik, who is blacklisted by the US for threatening the country's integrity, at the forefront of Bosnian politics.

"Each of us has a duty to choose those who we think will best preserve the unity of the Republika Srpska," Dodik, 59, told the press after casting a ballot in his hometown Laktasi.

If Dodik wins, he could find himself working alongside the current Croat member of the presidency Dragan Covic, who also advocates drawing deeper communal divisions.

Covic's HDZ party would like to see the creation of a third entity for Croats, who currently share a region with majority Bosnian Muslims.

The purpose of these "ethno-nationalist" policies is to "maintain the status quo and stagnation" that helps keep such leaders in control, said Bosnian political analyst Tanja Topic.

Among the population of some 3.5 million, a sense of political fatigue is pervasive.

"No party meets my expectations as a citizen," said Danica Odovic, a 47-year-old bookseller outside a polling station in Banja Luka, the capital of the Serb-run entity.

She added that she was voting only for "change... not because I think the others are better."

Another voter, who requested anonymity, said she would vote for Dodik in order "to protect Republika Srpska, and that's all."


Experts say Bosnia's unwieldy political structure helps graft run wild.

According to Transparency International, corruption is a serious problem in "all levels of government".

In local 2016 elections, the watchdog reported a range of malpractice, including parties promising jobs in exchange for votes.

This culture of patronage is one factor behind high emigration in recent years, a trend that deepens the country's economic woes.

A low average wage -- under 430 euros ($495) a month -- and high unemployment -- around one fifth of the population -- are also pushing young people to pack their bags.

"Most young people see their future outside Bosnia," said Zoran Kresic, an analyst.

Hearing these "same stories, messages of war and of the impossibility of living together, demotivates people from staying", he added.

Polls opened at 7:00 am local time (0500 GMT) and will close at 7:00 pm (1700 GMT), with first results not expected until midnight (2200 GMT).


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