Electoral Reform Threatens to Destabilize Bosnia-Herzegovina

Several mass protests have broken out in Sarajevo in the past month after the news emerged that the Office of the High Representative (OHR) intended to impose radical changes to the nation’s constitution, a move that has inflamed ethnic tensions in a country jostling to maintain the delicate peace it has had since 1995. 

The electoral system has remained the same since its implementation following the Bosnian War; the country is divided into ten cantons, with each canton electing one Bosniak, Croat, and Serb delegate to parliament regardless of the local population mix. Over the past 13 years, the European Court of Human Rights has found the electoral laws to be discriminatory towards minority groups in four separate rulings. The political deadlock in Bosnia-Herzegovina in the last two years stems primarily from this issue and the OHR, the ultimate authority in the federation, is finally wading in. 

The leaked proposals contain a provision that has cascading implications for the balance of power across the country. The changes would mean that if the numbers of Bosniaks, Croats, and Serbs in any canton were less than three percent, they would no longer have representation in parliament. Ethnonationalist political parties, such as the Croatian HDZ or the Serb SNSD, would be given a disproportionate degree of political power, ensuring their control over the Croat and Serb caucus respectively and subsequently the choices for the three-member presidential body. Whilst reform is long overdue, the current proposals would amount to a de facto ban on minorities holding political office, whilst also risk giving power to secessionist-leaning parties. 

The internal reaction has been fierce. Željko Komšić, the Croat member of Bosnia’s state presidency, and crucially not a member of HDZ, claimed the change would ‘deepen ethnic divisions.’ The President of the Bosnian Advocacy Center, Ismail Cidic, stated that the changes would mean ‘apartheid for Bosniaks.’ This is despite the US and UK’s diplomatic support for the proposals put forward by the High Representative, Christian Schmidt, indicating the widening chasm between the international community’s objectives and the goals of everyday Bosnians. 

External pressures have also had a role to play. The Croatian government has long meddled in the internal affairs of its neighbour, an exercise that has resulted in both the strengthening of its position in the Balkans and the promotion of its sister party, the HDZ. The Croatian investigative journalism portal ‘Istraga.ba’ reported that the Croatian Government had proposed their own amendments to Bosnia-Herzegovina’s electoral law, evidence of the political manoeuvring that is ongoing behind the scenes. 

The High Representative, whilst they are ultimately beholden to the Peace Implementation Council, an international body made up of forty-one countries, is in effect Bosnia-Herzegovina’s kingmaker. The electoral law proposals Schmidt intends to introduce have two major implications for the Balkan state: firstly, it risks alienating Bosnians from the West, enabling further Russian interference in the region and secondly, it tips the balance of power in favour of those who support genocide-denial and the dissolution of the state. Schmidt must recognize the powers at play are much larger than his office or the parliamentary bodies he seeks to transform and should, rather than exacerbating ethnic tensions, pursue a de-escalation of the matters.