Witnessing democracy in Bosnia and Herzegovina

On October 12th 2014, the Election Observation Project of AEGEE organized an Election Observation Mission (EOM) to the General Elections in Bosnia and Herzegovina. It was the second mission of this project after the EOM to the parliamentary and presidential elections in Ukraine on the 25th of May 2014 . Around 45 polling and voting stations in and around Sarajevo were visited during election day. 

The observers team, at 6 AM on election day, ready to start

Learning moments and eye-openers
As members of AEGEE, we realize democracy is fragile and should never be taken for granted. Therefore we aim to strengthen democratic processes and activate political participation of young people. With this in mind we took off for Bosnia and Herzegovina, hoping to contribute to the aim of fair and honest elections and to investigate the involvement of youths in the various election processes.

Being aware of the fact that our background influences our judgments and opinions, we left for Bosnia with a certain image of this country in our minds. The media in our home countries describes Bosnia as a corrupt, bankrupt country, torn apart by nationalist tensions and deprived of any hope for a brighter future. We are happy to report that our experiences during the elections do not reflect this image completely. In almost all polling stations we have visited, we met officials that were genuinely concerned about the fairness of the election procedure, especially during the vote counting. We saw vote counters working until early in the morning to ensure all ballots were checked and cross-checked. We saw almost all polling station officials handling the elections with a high level of professionalism. In addition, we were positively surprised by the transparency of the accreditation procedure for international observers. All relevant documents, even the Bosnian election law, can be found in English online in pdf format, which is exceptional compared to other countries.

One of the most complicated political systems in the world
The Bosnian political system has been named one of the most complicated in the world. The country is divided in two entities: the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (FBiH), mostly populated by ethnic Croats and Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims), and the Republika Srpska (RS), mostly populated by ethnic Serbs. The country knows a three-headed Presidency, consisting of a Serb, a Croat and a Bosniak, controversially elected exclusively by their respective ethnic groups and controlled by the Parliament. Apart from that, each entity has its own president. The RS President has been chosen directly during the elections on the 14th of October, whereas the prime minister of FBiH is indirectly appointed by the Parliamentary Assembly. The FBiH is divided in Cantons (regional municipalities), and RS knows a National Assembly. Consequently, the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina had to fill in four different voting ballots. All inhabitants of the country voted for the Presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the House of Representatives of the Parliamentary Assembly, and next to that the inhabitants of FBiH voted for their House of Representatives of the BiH Federation Parliament and the Cantonal Assemblies, and the inhabitants of Republika Srpska voted for the National Assembly of RS and the Presidency of RS.

Map of all voting and counting stations visited in and around Sarajevo

Most people will agree that this is an extremely complicated system. We clearly saw that voters and even vote counters were having a lot of difficulties understanding the procedures. We are highly concerned that this situation detracts the legitimacy of the vote and the trust of the voters, which is harmful for the credibility of the political system. One woman said, shrugging her shoulders, while explaining the voting ballot of the FBiH parliament: “No one here has a job, so everyone tries to be a politician”.

Kako glasovati? How to vote? These posters with explanations of the voting systems were hanging in every polling station.

The position of youth
During election day, we had the chance to speak to a lot of observers and other officials. It struck us that despite the fact that a surprisingly high number of polling station officials were of younger age, young voters were underrepresented. A higher voting turnout among youths would be warmly welcomed, however it was very positive to see this amount of young people involved in the elections in another way. “At least in this way, youths learn how to do democracy”, as one observer put it.

The ethnic divisions of Bosnia and Herzegovina are frozen into place by the country’s constitution, which was not more than an annex to the 1995 Dayton peace agreements that put an end to the Bosnian war. According to this constitution, Bosnians are obliged by law to proclaim themselves as one of the three identities Bosniak, Croat or Serb, or “other”. Controversially, the “Bosnian and Herzegovinan” identity is not recognized. An observer told us the story of a friend of hers at the university. This woman did not particularly identify herself with either the Bosniak, Serb or Croat identity, but she was not allowed to register herself as “Bosnian-Herzegovinan”, because this identity does not exist according to law. She went to the principal and asked him: “What if I register myself as Eskimo?” This was allowed, because it falls under “other” identities. This woman is still registered as an Eskimo, an official recognized identity.

A busy polling station in Pale

Is there hope for Bosnia?
This anecdote is an example of what happens when the rules or the system of a country are being overtaken by reality. Whereas the older generation of Bosnia and Herzegovina is still stuck in its ethnically divided past, as the preliminary election results clearly show, the younger generation is slowly getting ready to move on.

A lot needs to happen for this country to leave its past behind. The election results unfortunately do not show much progress, but the people we spoke to, the dedication and integrity we have seen in the polling stations, the power and the drive of Bosnian youth that we have witnessed all give us hope for a brighter future for Bosnia and Herzegovina.

This article aims to give a short background overview, there are way too many impressions to fit in one article. Visit us during the AEGEE-Fair at Agora Cagliari for the full report of our Mission.

Find here the press release we wrote for Blogactiv the day after the elections. 

Pictures from Roel de Natris, Boudewijn Steenhof,  Thomas Leszke and Marije Arentze

Written by Marije Arentze, AEGEE-Leiden