OSCE's Dilemma over Bosnia and Herzegovina’s General Elections

PeopleOther ♦ Published: August 24, 2022; 18:45 ♦ (Vindobona)

The OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) today opened an election observation mission for the 2 October parliamentary elections in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The OSCE mission is taking place in a country deeply scarred by war, now in the shadow of the Ukraine war and after a turbulent past few months of political conflict between the ruling parties in the country.

This time, the discourse in the election campaigns for the upcoming elections particularly promotes an “us-against-them” and therefore fosters ethnic tensions. / Picture: © Wikimedia Commons; Julian Nyča, CC BY-SA 3.0

Today's state of Bosnia and Herzegovina is just 25 years old. The younger generation no longer wants to hear about war, but nationalist rhetoric is gaining ground especially now that the elections are approaching. It is to be feared that the already tense situation could deteriorate further in the run-up to the vote.

Due to the problematic situation in the world and in Bosnia itself, many voices argue that these elections could be politically very unpleasant. In the shadow of the Ukraine war, the international community is concerned about more security in Europe and does not want to see any new trouble spots on the continent. The OSCE, therefore, has a major task to deal with.

Background of the political conflicts in Bosnia

A bloody civil was fought in former Yugoslavia, which not only created what is now the state of Bosnia and Herzegovina but also hit it hardest. The ethnic divisions sharpened since the war while being shamelessly exploited by the country's political parties.

The old political system with its one-party dictatorship was transformed into more or less parliamentary multi-party systems. Many democratic elements were adopted, such as separation of powers and civil rights, but anti-democratic practices during the period of change have survived to this day.

Bosnia is a multi-ethnic state. The constitutive peoples are Bosniaks (about 50% of the population), Serbs (31%) and Croats (15%). Politically, Bosnia consists of two entities. The Serb-dominated "Republika Srpska" and the "Federation" founded by Bosniaks and Croats. This makes the electoral law in Bosnia very complicated.

Plagued by many corruption scandals, the incumbent parties like to use nationalist and populist rhetoric to protect themselves, thus perpetuating divisions in Bosnian society.

There are elections this year that could change things. The major incumbent parties suffered severe setbacks in the local elections. Also, as Vindobona.org reported, the U.S., UK and some other countries are sanctioning some of the most important politicians and officials of the incumbent parties.

Therefore, this time, the discourse in the election campaigns for the upcoming elections particularly promotes an “us-against-them” or “they-against-us” way of thinking, which creates specific problems in policy-making and also harms the society and population of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

International community nervousness about the upcoming elections in Bosnia

In the last year there have been several political crises and conflicts in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The Corona crisis and the war in Ukraine certainly did not help the current situation either politically or economically. Many young people are also leaving the country en masse in the hope of a better life in countries in Western Europe.The incumbent nationalistic parties are clashing rhetorically against each other, avoiding solving the problems Bosnia faces.

Especially in the shadow of the Ukraine war and political crises in Bosnia itself, the international community does not want any additional problems in Europe. Especially the West does not want a destabilized Bosnia and wants to prevent Russia from influencing it. It was only recently, after ten years, that Germany sent soldiers to Bosnia and Herzegovina again. According to the Tagesschau, Berlin is determined to prevent Moscow from expanding its influence in the region and fueling tensions on the EU's doorstep.

Political leaders in Bosnia have tried for almost two years to amend the election law and the Constitution of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the larger of the two entities in the country, but failed. An attempt to bring about change again failed in Bosnia's coastal town of Neum in January, despite the moderation of the international community.

Especially since the elections are pending, one would like to introduce changes in the law in Bosnia's politics that would reform the electoral law.

Using its executive powers, the Office of the High Representative (OHR), the international office overseeing Bosnia's post-war peace settlement, intended to introduce changes less than four months before the general elections.

This is demanded primarily by the U.S.A, the United Kingdom and also the High Representative of the international community for Bosnia and Herzegovina, Christian Schmidt. Germany, Austria and other European countries have expressed concern and mixed feelings, fearing the reforms might deepen ethnic tensions in Bosnia.

Christian Schmidt is the High Representative of the international community for Bosnia and Herzegovina including the Republic of Srpska. With far-reaching powers, he is to monitor what was agreed in Dayton.

His start in the new office was difficult, accompanied by constant provocations from his opponent Milorad Dodik, the nationalist leader of the Serb-dominated part of the country, who himself is sanctioned by the U.S. due to corruption and destabilizing policies and rhetoric. But politicians from the other two ethnic groups in Bosnia also regularly provoke Schmid. Bosniak SDA party President, Bakir Izetbegović, was openely critizied by Schmidt for "warmongering and inflammatory statements" and spreading fear amongst all citizens of Bosnia, adding new tensions for political goals.

Especially in the last few months, these provocations have been severe, so Christian Schmidt freaked out in front of the camera when a journalist asked how he was dealing with the criticism and the provocations because of his election law reform attempts.

According to the Sarajevo Times, which interviewed Irena Hadziabdic, a Member of the Central Election Commission (CEC) of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Hadziabdic said the reforms will bring good changes that could reform the system in Bosnia. According to her, the Election Law now includes mechanisms that can stop manipulations and ensure a fair election.

OSCE Election Observation Mission in Bosnia

OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) announced today that it is preparing to deploy an Election Observation Mission for the upcoming general elections in Bosnia and Herzegovina.Due to the political problems accompanying this year's elections in Bosnia, the OSCE's mission is large.

According to the OSCE, all aspects of the elections will be closely monitored by observers, including voter registration, the campaign, social media, election administration at all levels, election-related legislation and its implementation, media coverage, and resolution of election disputes. Additionally, they will evaluate the implementation of previous ODIHR election recommendations.

As part of the mission, the OSCE will assess the elections for compliance with international standards and obligations for democratic elections, as well as with national laws. According to the OSCE, the observation process includes meetings with representatives of state authorities and political parties, civil society, the media, and the international community.

According to the OSCE, as part of their observation of the opening of polling stations, voting, counting of ballots, and tabulation of results on election day, the ODIHR mission will collaborate with delegations from the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA), the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly (PACE), the European Parliament (EP), and NATO Parliamentary Assembly (NATO PA).

The OSCE announced, that its mission to observe the elections will be headed by Ambassador Peter Tejler and is comprised of 13 international experts based in Sarajevo and 24 long-term observers, who will deploy throughout the country as of 31 August following an official invitation from the national authorities and a needs assessment mission conducted in June this year. The ODIHR also plans to request 300 short-term observers, who will arrive several days before the election.

The political crisis in Bosnia and the international nervousness triggered by the war in Ukraine could mean that the OSCE and its Election Observation Mission have an enormous task to do when it comes to observing the politically turbulent elections in Bosnia and protecting them from manipulation and other malicious intentions.


OHR Office of the High Representative