Post-Election Troubles in Bosnia: What Role for the EU?

Joanne McEvoy

1 November 2018


Several weeks now after the October 2018 elections in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the state finds itself in the throes of renewed controversy over the three constituent peoples’ respective control of political institutions. The contentious election results have sparked yet again a testing period for the EU as it seeks to encourage political leaders to press ahead and form governments at all levels across the two entities of the Federation and Republika Srpska (RS). In the wake of the election results, the EU Delegation decried the electorate’s ‘continuing segmentation along ethnic lines’ but pressed political leaders to work ‘constructively together, in the interest of the citizens of their country.’ Despite issuing such easy words of encouragement, however, the EU’s role looks set to be severely tested in the months ahead.

The results of the state presidency elections are symptomatic of the wider competition between the three main groups for political power. Reflecting the political compromise of the Dayton Peace Agreement, the state presidency includes a Bosniak member and a Croat member from the Federation and a Serb member from the RS. The principal contention of the election results, and discomfort for the EU, was the victory of Milorad Dodik, the hardline leader of the Bosnian Serbs and former President of the RS, who secured the Serb seat on the state presidency. With close relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin and seemingly committed to independence for the RS, Dodik’s win looks set to exacerbate divisions and may well hamper the country’s already painstaking path to EU membership. Celebrating his electoral win, Dodik announced he would work from offices in East Sarajevo in the RS and not at the Bosnian Presidency offices in Sarajevo (Balkan Insight, 11 October 2018). Undertaking his presidential duties away from his Croat and Bosniak counterparts will likely be viewed internally and externally as a rebuff to any expectation of inter-communal cooperation and goodwill. Dodik is also reported to have asked a Serbian Orthodox priest to hold a ‘purification liturgy’ before taking up the post to rid the Bosnian presidency of ‘bad ghosts’ (Balkan Insight, 11 October 2018). He also intimated that he would refuse to attend presidency meetings if the RS flag is not flown: ‘If there are no RS flags, I will not be there’ (Balkan Insight, 11 October 2018). Moreover, Dodik made clear his priority would be to work for the RS and only for the Serbian community (Balkan Insight, 7 October 2018).

The election of Zeljko Komsic (Democratic Front) as the Croat member of the state presidency over the main Croat party, HDZ BiH, has also been subject to political contention and protest. Members of the Bosnian Croat community claim that he does not represent them and that he owes his victory to the Bosniak vote (Balkan Insight, 12 October 2018). The Bosniak seat of the state presidency was won by Sefik Dzaferovic, Vice-President of the SDA and Izetbegovic’s loyal successor, enabling the main Bosniak party to maintain its influence on the state presidency for another four years.

The ongoing debacle over the presidency election results serves to highlight further the challenge of securing constitutional reform in Bosnia. Indeed, the election results, particularly Dodik’s win, suggest that the potential for reform of the Dayton structures is less likely than ever. Political contention over the recent election results should be understood in the context of ongoing issues over the constitution and the particular rules of the power-sharing arrangements. Long demanded by the EU as part of Bosnia’s European perspective, the main political parties have failed to agree on reform to bring the constitution in line with the European Court of Human Rights rulings since the Sejdic and Finci case of 2009, the Zornic case of 2014 and the Pilav case of 2016. On these separate occasions, the ECHR ruled that the Bosnian constitution is discriminatory, but attempts to reform the constitution in compliance with these rulings have thus far failed. A potential new discrimination case has been lodged with the ECHR by a Bosnian Serb, Svetozar Pudaric, whose candidacy for a seat on the state presidency was rejected by the state’s Central Electoral Committee given his place of residence in the Federation (Balkan Insight, 19 October 2018).

So how might the EU respond to these recurring power-sharing troubles? As the ‘pull’ of the European integration process has been unable to facilitate the expected political change in Bosnia, the EU must fall back on various strategies which amount to encouraging, incentivising, and cajoling elites to govern. That such strategies deliver results in the form of improved governance depends, of course, on the willingness of political elites. And such willingness appears in short supply. Yet, the EU is in it for the long haul to the end point where internal stability and good governance become the norm rather than an aspiration. The stated goal has always been for international actors to exit and a formal strategy for the closure of the Office of the High Representative has been in place since 2008. Stability has proven elusive and the conditions for exit have been subject to shifting goalposts. Bosnia’s progress toward EU membership has been premised on constitutional reform, viewed as overly complex and financially unsustainable and a potential impediment to integration. The EU/OHR has employed both ‘light touch’ and more ‘heavy handed’ strategies to bring about elite cooperation and political stability. With the OHR’s Bonn Powers no longer a viable option, the EU continues to work to support the political parties by encouraging reform and cooperation. A series of initiatives since 2005, most notably the ‘April package’ of 2006 and the ‘Butmir process’ of 2009 failed to bring about inter-party agreement on reform. A less robust process has been underway since 2014 to the point where constitutional reform is expected to come about as a part of a more organic process of socio-economic reform.

Time will tell whether and how the EU can assist or implore the electoral victors in Bosnia to get with the business of governing in the interest of the whole population, irrespective of ethno-nationalist identity. The power-sharing dilemma, however, shapes the extent to which the EU can help political elites ‘go it alone’ when the implementation of the Dayton structures depends on the EU’s ongoing engagement. The problem of domestic dependency creates a cyclical situation whereby local politicians are disincentivised from taking ownership, requiring external actors, principally the EU, to remain engaged and ever on hand to encourage, coax and cajole.


Image details

Title photo caption: Visit by Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the EC and Johannes Hahn, Member of the EC in charge of European Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations, to Sarajevo, February 2018.

Title photo credit: EC Photo/Etienne Ansotte


About the Author

Joanne McEvoy

Joanne McEvoy is Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at the University of Aberdeen, Scotland, UK. Her research interests lie in post-conflict institutional design, particularly the capacity of power-sharing to promote sustainable peace and democracy in deeply divided societies.

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