Bosnia and Herzegovina
Long road to new government – Liberals in it for the first time

Borjana Krišto

Borjana Krišto

© picture alliance / AA | Samir Jordamovic

Bosnia and Herzegovina consists of two entities, the “Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina” – simply put a federation of Bosniaks and Croats – and Republika Srpska, which occupy 51% and 49 % of the country’s territory. The two entities have asymmetric structures: While the Federation is further divided into ten cantons, each with a government and parliament, the Republika Srpska is unitary. The decentralization of the state as a whole is thus considerable, making Bosnia and Herzegovina a notoriously complex country. Elections held in October 2022 were elections for the three member Presidency on the state level, where a Bosniak and a Croat are elected from the territory of the Federation and a Serb from Republika Srpska. These provisions are deemed discriminatory and in violation of the European Court of Human Rights as the electoral process is not equal to anybody. So far, all talks aimed at removing discriminatory provisions have proven futile.

Ever since the signing of the “General Framework Agreement for Peace” in 1995, better known as “The Dayton Agreement” (named after the city in which it was negotiated), and the subsequent reestablishment of the electoral process, results of elections almost exclusively favoured ethnic and nationalist parties. There are various reasons for this. First there is a prevalence of inter-ethnic issues, pedalled and perpetuated by these same parties. Secondly, these parties maintained exclusive control over vast public resources and institutions for more than two decades, abusing them and making them instrumental for staying in power.

Opposition usually fights an uphill battle and a playing field tilted significantly in favour of incumbent parties. Yet this time, the “Coalition of Three” which already governs in the Canton Sarajevo with Naša stranka’s president Edin Forto as a Prime Minister, expanded for the presidential race to include additional eight parties. Opposition candidate Denis Bećirović from the Social Democratic Party won the election securing the post of a member of tri-partite presidency against Bakir Izetbegović, the leader of main Bosniak party SDA (member of EPP) and the son of wartime president Alija Izetbegović. Despite remaining the largest party, Izetbegović’s SDA was outnumbered by the united front of opposition parties, which entered into talks with Croat parties under the leadership of HDZ (Croat Democratic Union) in the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. On the state level, the opposition alliance started negotiations with HDZ as well as the election winner in Republika Srpska, the nationalist SNSD of infamous Milorad Dodik. Government formation talks for the state level are likely to be completed this month, which is significant improvement over previous elections which at times took more than a year to be completed.

Faced with the prospect of losing power for the first time on all levels with the exception of a few cantons, SDA resorted to usual but more radical smear campaign producing a narrative that portrayed the opposition as traitors and appeasers to Croat and Serb nationalists out to destroy and dismantle the country. SDA did not shy away from likening Forto and other leaders of the opposition to Fikret Abdić, a wartime breakaway Bosniak leader and war criminal. It did not take long until serious threats were issued against Edin Forto and others. Responding to one such threat, police apprehended a suspect and confiscated an automatic weapon and ammunition. So far, and despite some defections, the united opposition remains poised to form a government on the state and the level of the Federation.

Newly appointed Prime Minister on the state level is Borjana Krišto from HDZ, a former president of the Federation. The names of her ministers became known only few days ago, and shortly before the deadline for submitting the names expired. Naša stranka’s president Edin Forto will become Bosnia and Herzegovina’s new Minister of Traffic and Communication, overseeing stalled processes of digitalization as well as the sluggish and often ridiculed construction of a north-south highway called “Corridor Vc”. Government formation talks and processes on the level of the Federation are proving more challenging. Here, SDA commands a majority of the Bosniak caucus and is likely to use this leverage to stall the government formations process. Unfortunately, this is not a new development as the current government of the Federation has actually been a caretaker government for four years now. Last time, HDZ blocked the formation of the Federation’s government continuously. Christian Schmidt, the “United Nations High Representative” for Bosnia and Herzegovina whose mandate includes sweeping “Bonn Powers” and whose recent actions provoked many controversies, imposed changes to the election law and the Constitution of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina during July and October 2022 respectively. The latter was aimed at preventing the blockade of government formation in the Federation and is currently under judicial review by the Constitutional Court.

How functional and stable the new governments will be, and to what extent the liberal “Naša stranka” will be able to transform historically negative political dynamics on the state and Federation level are questions everybody is asking. Same doubts were voiced when the governing coalition with “Naša stranka” emerged in Canton Sarajevo after the elections in 2018, yet their good governing record won them a lot of sympathies and the status of an unwavering socially progressive party. No doubt, working with proto-nationalists who have a penchant for producing rather than solving conflicts will be challenging, but “Naša stranka” has proven capable of transforming political culture and relations before.

Dr. Adnan Huskić is project manager for Bosnia and Herzegovina of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom based in Sarajevo.