An orderly election full of ethnonationalist tensions: Impressions from Silba’s election observation mission to Bosnia and Herzegovina6 min read
The General Elections of 2 October in Bosnia and Herzegovina have often been marked as a possible turning or burning point for the future of the country. Bosnia remains extremely vulnerable to ethnonationalist tensions, and the election result will determine the importance of ethnocentric politics in Bosnia, as moderately nationalist candidates are competing with ultranationalist candidates and the extent to which anticorruption is taken seriously.
Indeed, in the years building up to the elections, politicians have increasingly made use of ethnically divisive rhetoric, amplifying existing interethnic tensions. This has led many to conclude that the complex state structure derived from the Dayton Peace Accords, signed in 1995 after the conclusion of the Bosnian War, can best be described as highly fragile.
In this context, election observation is of utmost importance, as it contributes to public trust in the election results, which is a prerequisite for stability within the country at large. However, at the time of writing, the election result of the presidency of the Republika Srpska remains contested, as both presidential candidates — Milorad Dodik, party leader of the Alliance of Independent Social Democrats (SNSD), and Jelena Trivic, party leader of the Party of Democratic Progress (PDP) — claim electoral victory. For this reason, an estimated 30,000 supporters of the Party of Democratic Progress took to the streets of Banja Luka, the de facto capital of Republika Srpska, on 6 October to protest against alleged election theft by Dodik supporters. Following these protests, Bosnia’s Central Electoral Commission has ordered a complete recount of the ballots for the president of the Bosnian entity of the Republika Srpska. One cannot help to wonder why, in light of this internal turmoil, the European Commission recently proposed candidate-membership for Bosnia.
The Danish NGO Silba – Initiative for Dialogue and Democracy was one of the organisations providing international Short Term Observers (STOs) to monitor the extent to which Bosnia adheres to its OSCE commitments on free and fair elections. Silba deployed 39 STOs and 6 coordinators to Bosnia from 27 September to 4 October. These STOs were assisted on election day by 17 young Bosnian translators who facilitated communication between the STOs and Polling Station Officials (PSOs). The STOs were divided into three teams, each led by an area coordinator, and deployed to different cities, namely Sarajevo and Mostar within the Bosnian Federation and Banja Luka within the Republika Srpska.
The observers deployed by Silba largely assessed that voting process procedures were respected, as voter identification ensured that voters went to their assigned polling stations. This allowed the election to take place in an orderly fashion. However, there were some causes for concern.
The most prevalent of these concerns was in relation to the secrecy of voting, as also stated in the preliminary findings of the OSCE. The voting booths did not provide voters with the privacy to cast their vote, as the voting screens were positioned closely to partisan observers. Polling stations were often situated in a small room with the PSOs sitting opposite of the voting booths and partisan observers sitting at the remaining sides, which allowed the partisan observers in the back of the room to have a clear view of the voting booths. At times, PSOs and partisan observers were closely involved with voters, hampering the secrecy of the vote. In most cases, this pertained to the assistance of elderly voters. Although these votes cannot be classified as secret, observers noted the aid as necessary in the spirit of allowing these people to vote.
However, even with assistance, the possibility for elderly people to vote was not fully guaranteed, as observers noted that many polling stations were impossible to access for wheelchair users and otherwise hard for elderly people. The majority of the polling stations required stairs to enter. Although this does not seem to be a conscious attempt to prevent disabled people from participating in the political process, and PSOs at times provided these people voting materials outside of the polling station, this is still a suboptimal situation, which either compromises the secrecy of the vote for disabled people or may even deter them from voting.
Despite the fact that across the board PSOs acted professionally and in a cooperative manner towards observers, some observers noted issues regarding uncooperative behaviour from either the heads of the polling station commissions or the PSOs. This uncooperative behaviour manifested itself in an unwillingness to answer observer questions and a general distrustful attitude towards observers. In some cases, this led to an occasional refusal to allow observers to be accompanied by their translator, complicating the observers’ work.
In some of the polling stations, the ballot boxes were not sealed sufficiently. This is highly concerning, as it makes it impossible to tell whether anyone has tampered with the contents of the ballots and consequently influenced the election results.
Lastly, some irregularities occurred during the closing procedure of the polling stations. Party observers assisted in the process of counting votes, either with permission of the PSOs or tolerated by the PSOs. Another cause for concern during the closing procedure of the polling stations in Banja Luka was that on several occasions boxes with unused ballots were inadequately sealed. It seemed this could be explained by a general confusion about the correct protocol.
Overall, the General Elections took place in an orderly fashion. Yet, there were concerns regarding the accessibility of polling stations, the secrecy of the vote, and the inconsistent application of procedural safeguards. It is also important to take into account the practice of vote buying, which was raised as a cause for concern by local civil society. However, vote buying would take place before the voting process and is thus difficult to observe.
In conclusion, one could say that the political situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina remains complicated. Although the elections followed generally accepted procedures, the elections have not contributed to more trust-building the Republika Srpska and the internal situation remains unstable, as manifested by the large-scale opposition protests in Banja Luka on 6 October. As a result of this lack of trust in the election results, a full recount has been ordered by Bosnia’s Central Electoral Commission. From the point of view of an election observer, the European Commission’s proposal to grant Bosnia candidate-membership is remarkable. Geopolitical motivations seem to have gained priority in EU integration policy over the country’s domestic political situation. Instability could easily remain, and contribute to, Bosnia remaining in a waiting room for EU membership for quite some time.
Silba – Initiative for Dialogue and Democracy is a youth organisation based in Denmark. One of its main activities is Election Observation Missions (EOMs). Silba has been working to support free and fair elections since 1994 and has been on over 50 EOMs to 17 different countries – the latest being in Bosnia and Herzegovina for what was Silba’s second EOM in the country.