BiH’s Decisive Electoral reform Strikes New Divisions among Internal and External Actors

Srećko Latal / 8 Mar, 2021

The paper analyses the divergent positions and strategies of key actors on the eventual electoral reform of BiH’s defunct and corrupt electoral system and outlines its local, regional and international context. It focuses primarily on key internal and external actors, which are engaged in the on-going negotiations. The analysis shows that the different positions reflect different views, which the local ethnic groups and political parties have on BiH’s past, present and the future.

The deepening political crisis in Bosnia and Herzegovina, whose extent was revealed during the COVID-19 pandemic and 2020 local elections has revived public interest in country’s electoral reform. After avoiding and delaying reforms of its defunct electoral system for years, Bosnia Herzegovina’s leaders are now forced to deal with this issue amidst the multidimensional health, political and economic crises caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Reform of BiH’s election system is one of country’s biggest challenges since the Dayton Agreement as it opens critical questions about relations amongst its three constitutive peoples and the very nature of the BiH political system. The importance and complexity of the debate on the reform draws also regional and international attention, especially from neighbouring Croatia and Serbia or the EU, US and Russia. Positions of key local actors on eventual electoral reform range widely, and take various, often opposite directions.

This paper analyses the different positions and strategies of key actors on the eventual electoral reform of BiH’s defunct and corrupt electoral system and outlines its local, regional and international context. It focuses primarily on key internal and external actors, which are engaged in negotiations. Given the state of almost complete political deadlock as well as mistrust among local leaders, the outcome of this reform is likely going to be determined by external influences.

​The analysis shows that the different positions reflect divergent views, which Bosniak, Bosnian Croat and Serb parties have on BiH’s past, present and future. If successful, the reform would not only fix the country’s election system, but also patch-up the Washington Agreement and relations between Bosniak and Bosnian Croat leaders, which is critical for the survival of BiH.

​It further argues that given the depth of local political deadlock, the outcome of this reform will once again end up depending on the engagement of the US and EU, as well as other foreign influences. The renewed attention, which Washington and EU capitals have recently been paying to the Balkans looks encouraging. Nevertheless, if the West wants to achieve a breakthrough in BiH after 15 years of failed reform attempts, it will finally have to put its money where its mouth is, and find a different approach to addressing BiH’s problems.

​Any Western efforts will be facing opposition not only from local but from regional and other international actors. One of the key roles in BiH’s unfolding electoral reform will be played by Croatia, which has already thrown all of its political and diplomatic muscle behind Bosnian Croat leadership and is determined to make sure that in future Bosnian Croat officials are elected by what they see as “legitimate” Bosnian Croat voters. In its efforts, Croatia may find unlikely allies in Serbia and Russia, since Zagreb, Belgrade and Moscow want to keep BiH’s political system highly decentralized and ethnically-based.

​The upcoming reform is caught in a legal and political quandary. On the one hand six rulings of the European Court of Human Rights, ECHR, require from BiH legislators to remove ethnic discrimination from BiH Constitution. On the other hand, BiH Constitutional Court in its 2016 ruling calls upon them to change the election law to ensure that political representatives of one constituent people are not elected by other ethnic groups.

​Finding a proper balance between these two almost opposing poles, as well as among different ethnic, political and technical solutions for BiH electoral reform within such a difficult environment and limited timeframe will be exceptionally hard. Yet failure should not be an option, as it would risk the fate of Bosnia and Herzegovina and by proxy the stability of the Balkans and the whole of Europe.