Bosnia votes in general elections amid growing ethnic divide

Bosnians are voting to choose the country’s new collective presidency in the most important elections since the end of the war and the signing of the Dayton agreement in 1995.

Polls opened at 7am (05:00 GMT) on Sunday following a campaign season marked by threats of secession, political infighting, and fears of future turmoil in this ethnically divided Balkan nation.

Nearly 3.4 million people are eligible to vote. Voters will cast ballots for the three members of Bosnia’s tripartite presidency, members of parliament, and the president of the country’s Republika Srpska.

Some 90 political parties have fielded their candidates, with another 17 candidates running as independents.

The Balkan state has been governed by a dysfunctional administrative system created by the 1995 Dayton Agreement that succeeded in ending the conflict in the 1990s but has largely failed in providing a framework for the country’s political development.

The peace agreement divided the country into two highly independent governing entities: the Republika Srpska – which has a predominantly Serb population – and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which is shared by Bosniaks and Croats. The two entities have broad autonomy but are linked by shared national institutions. All countrywide actions require consensus from all three ethnic groups.

In the war’s wake, ethnic political parties have long exploited the country’s divisions in a bid to maintain power.

“People are not being represented equally and our democracy and our sovereignty is always being challenged by the others,” Ena Porca, a first-time voter told Al Jazeera.

Lack of new contenders

With little to no polling data available, analysts say incumbents and nationalist parties that have dominated the post-war political scene are likely to win many of the races.

Adnan Huskic, a professor of political science, told Al Jazeera that the electoral conditions are a “perfect storm” where nationalist parties represent their own interests rather than that of constituents.

“Raising ethnic tensions and producing problems and conflicts is how they divert the attention of the public from grave socioeconomic conditions,” he said.

Many voters say the lack of young candidates offering fresh ideas has left them largely uninspired on the eve of the elections.

“Most of the candidates that are running are the ones we have been watching for the last 20 years,” Sara Djogic, a 21-year-old philosophy student in the capital Sarajevo, told AFP.

“There are not many who offer something new,” she added.

The country is torn between secessionist Orthodox Serbs and Catholic Croats demanding greater autonomy and electoral reforms.

The country’s Bosniaks will also face a choice of voting for a disparate, 11-party coalition that is trying to unseat the rule of the mainstream SDA.

The SDA is led by Bakir Izetbegovic – the son of the first president of independent Bosnia – and has largely dominated the political scene in the country for decades.

Meanwhile, the long-serving Bosnian Serb political leader, Milorad Dodik, is seeking his third term as the president of Republika Srpska and has used the election campaign to champion a secessionist agenda and Russia’s war in Ukraine – which resulted in the US placing him under new sanctions in January.

Dodik’s primary challenger, Jelena Trivic, has promised to crack down on corruption in Republika Srpska if elected.

“Our revenge will be the law,” Trivic said ahead of the polls.

Threats and vitriol

Bosnia has never fully recovered from its interethnic 1992-1995 war, which had a death toll of nearly, 100,000. The war started when Serbs, who accounted for about a third of the population, tried to dismember it and unite the territories they claimed as their own with neighbouring Serbia.

In the past eight years alone, nearly half a million people are estimated to have emigrated due to a lack of jobs, poor public services and endemic corruption.

A nationwide opinion survey published last week on public perception of elections indicated that more than 40 percent of Bosnians believed their country’s electoral system did not allow for a genuine reflection of citizens’ will.

Nearly 10 percent of the respondents in the survey, commissioned by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, said they experienced pressure on family members while another 6.8 percent reported having been threatened with loss of employment if they did not vote for a particular party or a candidate.

The ever-present threats and vitriol have led some to skip the polling booth Sunday.

“I do not expect anything new after these elections. Everything will be the same,” Mira Sladojevic, a pensioner in her seventies in Sarajevo, told AFP.

“I haven’t voted for a long time,” she added.

The first wave of preliminary results is expected several hours after the polls close at 7pm (17:00 GMT).

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