Bosnia election explained: How does it work? Who is running? Who is likely to win?

Bosnia and Herzegovina is preparing for a general election on Sunday, 2 October.

Here we explain how the election works, who the main parties and candidates are, and what the likely outcome might be in a country said to have the most complicated system of government in the world.

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How did Bosnia end up with the world’s most complex administration?

The Balkan country of about 3.2 million is facing a difficult set of choices in its ninth general election since the first multi-party vote in 1990.

At the time, Bosnia was still a part of the Socialist Federative Republic of Yugoslavia — a communist country that soon crumbled and set off a series of wars and conflicts between 1991 and 1999.

As one of the seven independent states that came out of the breakup, Bosnia experienced its own war between 1992 and 1995. 

Until recently, it was considered the bloodiest conflict in Europe since World War II.

Bosnia remains extremely vulnerable to the increased nationalist tensions — as the most diverse country in the Balkan region — that appeared as communism grew weaker.

Armin Durgut/Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.
Supporters of Party of Democratic Action (SDA) march towards a campaign rally in Tuzla, 28 September 2022Armin Durgut/Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

The country’s three main ethnic groups — the Eastern Orthodox Serbs, Catholic Croats and Muslim Bosniaks — were drawn into a conflict that escalated into campaigns of ethnic cleansing, mass rape and concentration camps. 

Bosnia was also subject to aggression backed by its neighbours Serbia and Croatia, who purported to represent Bosnian Serbs and Croats, respectively.

Its cities, including the capital Sarajevo, were subjected to years of siege warfare, including the indiscriminate shelling and sniping of civilians.

The war saw 100,000 casualties, with two million people becoming either refugees or internally displaced, culminating in the genocide of Bosniaks in Srebrenica in July 1995.

Drafted to bring the war to an end in 1995, the US-sponsored Dayton Peace Accords — part of which serves as the country’s constitution — created a dizzying maze of jurisdictions that enable the country’s three main ethnic groups to dominate domestic politics and exert control over key decision-making processes.

What is the setup that came with the peace agreement?

The peace agreement instituted two main administrative units in Bosnia — the Serb-dominated entity of Republika Srpska, or RS, and the Bosniak-Croat majority Federation of BiH (FBiH).

The entity of the FBiH is further divided into ten cantons, while the northeastern town of Brčko was designated as a district whose local government is directly responsible to the state-level institutions.

This resulted in a complex system of 14 different governments with a total of 136 ministers.

At the state level, Bosnia has a three-way presidency, with each member elected to a four-year term to represent one of the three ethnic groups, and a Council of Ministers and its president who are, in essence, the country’s prime minister and their cabinet.

Bosnia also has a bicameral parliament, divided into a 42-member House of Representatives and a 15-member upper house, the House of Peoples, which is tasked with ensuring that any proposed legislation does not violate the so-called “vital national interest” principle.

Under this provision, representatives of any of the three main ethnic groups can block legislation passed by the lower house if they feel it hurts the interests of their group – a part of the system often blamed for the lack of progress in the country.

Credit: Euronews
Bosnia’s complex make-upCredit: Euronews

The two entities have a similar two-house parliamentary body, with the FBiH Parliament also divided into a House of Representatives consisting of 98 MPs and a 58-delegate House of Peoples.

In the RS, the lower house, the People’s Assembly, has 83 seats, while the Council of Peoples has 28 delegates.

In the RS, voters will additionally elect the entity-level president and vice-president.

All of these are to be elected on Sunday, along with the members of the 10 cantonal assemblies — meaning that each voter will receive four different ballots with hundreds of candidates to choose from for the various offices.

The country’s Central Electoral Commission, CIK, said that the ballots on Sunday will feature a total of 127 political subjects: 72 political parties, 38 coalitions and 17 independent candidates.

The total number of candidates in the 2022 election came out to 7,257 names, which can be found on a 150-page-long joint list CIK made public in the run-up to Sunday.

How come not all citizens are equal?

Some specificities make the already complex system even more puzzling, if not borderline absurd.

While the entity-level upper houses have a designated number of seats for those who represent citizens not identifying as either Serbs, Croats or Bosniaks, the state-level House of Peoples — like the Presidency — is a purely ethnic body.

This means that a citizen of Bosnia who chooses not to identify as one of the three ethnic groups cannot be elected president, despite legally having the right to run in the election.

Additionally, the presidential election is organised in a way where residents of the entity of the RS are the only ones who can be nominated or vote for the Serb member of the Presidency. In turn, Bosniaks and Croats can only run or vote for president if they live in the other half of the country.

What is being done about it?

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This led to a number of lawsuits in front of the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg over the years. Five distinct rulings in favour of the plaintiffs all state that the existing electoral system violates basic human rights.

The most famous case, known as Sejdić-Finci after the plaintiffs Dervo Sejdić and Jakob Finci, was jointly filed by representatives of the Roma and Jewish communities. It has not been implemented for over a decade.

AP Photo/Kemal Softic
Jakob Finci looks at a religious book inside the synagogue in Sarajevo as worshipers stay away due to the national lockdown to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in April 2020AP Photo/Kemal Softic

The way in which delegates are elected to the entity of the FBiH House of Peoples became the focal point of the ire directed at the international peace envoy or the High Representative earlier this summer.

Christian Schmidt’s proposal to restructure the way in which representatives to the ethnic body are elected to reflect demographic changes since the war resulted in large-scale protests in front of his Sarajevo and widespread outrage.

The High Representative, who is in charge of implementing the civilian part of the peace accords, can enact legislation or remove politicians from office if they go against the constitutional order.

While Schmidt maintained that the current electoral law clashes with the entity-level constitution, his critics have accused him of colluding with the representatives of Bosniak Croats — who they claim are the only beneficiaries of these electoral changes.

The proposed changes have been put on hold since.

Who are the main candidates for the Bosnian presidency?

Of all of the different bodies that will have their representatives up for election on Sunday, the three-way presidency is the most important.

Although it is largely symbolic, as most of the power lies elsewhere, the members of the presidency determine the tone and course of the country’s foreign policy, which is key for a country vying to become a full-fledged EU and NATO member.

The campaign for the presidency is the one citizens associate with and are invested in the most.

While the Bosnian Serbs will have the biggest number of candidates to choose from — five in total — the race for the Bosniak and Croat representatives is likely to be the most heated.

Three candidates are in the running for the Bosniak presidency member: Mirsad Hadžikadić from the Platform for Progress, SDA’s Bakir Izetbegović and a centre-left candidate from the United for Free Bosnia coalition, Denis Bećirović.

Izetbegović, whose Bosniak ethnonational party has been in power almost continuously for the past three decades, was in the presidency twice already (consecutively between 2010 and 2018, and is in the running for his third mandate).

AP Photo/Armin Durgut
Bakir Izetbegović, centre, applauds at the start of a campaign rally in Tuzla, 28 September 2022AP Photo/Armin Durgut

His father, Alija Izetbegović, was the country’s first president after it declared independence in 1992 and one of the signatories of the Dayton Peace Accord.

Although present in politics since the 1992-1995 war as his father’s advisor, Bakir Izetbegović rose to the top of the party following Alija’s death and has held a firm grip on the party, despite long-standing allegations of corruption and internal disputes that led to SDA fractioning into distinct, more regional parties.

The younger Izetbegović’s campaign was not without blunders: early on, he said that his response to the massive brain drain the country has been experiencing for the past decade would be to “replace the youth with drones”.

His wife, Sebija Izetbegović, who is running for a seat in the entity of the FBiH parliament, was blasted by some for stating at a rally on 25 September that Bosniak voters who choose another political option are “unfortunates and losers who went down horrendous roads that will again … take us to concentration camps, execution sites and mass graves.”

The left-centre-leaning SDP’s Bećirović, who is running for his first term as president after getting the backing of the opposition early on in the campaign, is perceived as a more moderate choice.

AP Photo/Armin Durgut
Denis Becirović of Social Democratic Party (SDP) who is running for the Bosnian Presidency speaks, during a campaign rally in Živinice on 28 September 2022AP Photo/Armin Durgut

A delegate in the state-level parliament, Bećirović has been criticised for refusing to participate in TV debates if Izetbegović is not present, which was seen as disrespectful towards the third candidate, liberal university professor Hadžikadić.

Bećirović has been platforming on the need for less ethnocentric politics, as the current Bosniak member of the presidency, Šefik Džaferović, is also a member of SDA.

“Bosnia is a democratic county and it needs democrats to lead it, and not arrogant sultans who ignore the voice of the people and refuse to acknowledge their indolence,” he said in a pre-election interview for regional TV station N1.

The race for the Croat representative in the Presidency is a historically complicated one. Since the entity of FBiH acts as one electoral unit for two of the three seats — Bosniak and Croat — the ethnonational political representatives of the Bosnian Croats have long maintained that this opens the door to electoral manipulation by Bosniak voters.

AP Photo/Amel Emric
Borjana Krišto with Croatian PM Andrej Plenković and party boss Dragan Čović at a HDZ rally in Mostar in 2018.AP Photo/Amel Emric

This is why the more radical among the Bosnian Croats have openly opposed the 2018 election of the current Croat member of the Presidency, Željko Komšić, declaring him a persona non grata in several towns in the country’s south — where the majority of the population supports the likes of HDZ BiH.

Bosnian Croats represent 22.4% of the population in the entity, compared to 70.4% of Bosniaks.

However, the international community has so far failed to suggest a viable alternative to the current system for the elections to the presidency. Critics insist any changes to the current system would create an even more segregated body, as preferential voting would also act in favour of solidifying the power of nationalist options.

HDZ BiH leader Dragan Čović — who has also served as one of the country’s presidents but lost to Komšić in 2018 — has pegged Komšić, a Bosnian Croat from Sarajevo, “the second Bosniak Presidency member”.

However, Čović chose not to run in 2022, with HDZ BiH opting to instead nominate Borjana Krišto, a lawyer and state-level lawmaker, who Čović said was “the only candidate of the Croat people”.

Krišto will face off against Komšić, whose DF party declares itself a centre-left pro-Bosnian party.

Putin-friendly Dodik eyes entity head post

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The biggest surprise of the 2022 election is the decision by the Bosnian Serb populist firebrand Milorad Dodik not to run for reelection as presidency member.

Dodik, a pro-Putin separatist leader, has chosen to run for the entity presidency in the RS, trading places with the current RS President Željka Cvijanović, who comes from his party, SNSD.

Cvijanović will face four other candidates for the Bosnian Serb spot in the state Presidency, with the SDS’ Mirko Šarović the most notable among them.

SDS, the legacy party of Radovan Karadžić — the wartime leader of Bosnian Serbs convicted to life in prison for numerous war crimes and genocide by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia at The Hague — has been the largest opposition party in the RS after losing power to Dodik in the early 2000s.

Šarović won the Presidency seat once in 2002 but was forced to resign and was subsequently suspended from politics by the High Representative in 2003 over a corruption scandal involving arms exports.

The former state-level minister of trade, Šarović is considered to be a significantly more moderate politician than Dodik.

Yet, he has been criticised for not publicly denouncing his party’s connections to convicted war criminals such as Karadžić, while the third most popular candidate for entity presidency, SDP’s Vojin Mijatović, vowed to withdraw from the race if Šarović “promises not to demand secession” if he is elected.

What do Bosnians want?

Ever since the war ended, the country has been on a path of stagnation, economically and otherwise.

Having had most of its industry and infrastructure destroyed in the fighting, the post-war years saw Bosnia attempt to transition from a socialist self-management-style economy into a full-fledged capitalist one.

This opened the door to large-scale corruption, which has since permeated every segment of society, including its large public sector.

According to the Corruption Perceptions Index, which compiles 13 different corruption surveys and assessments into one single score, Bosnia is the worst-ranked country in Europe in 2021 and sits at 110th place worldwide.

The country also often ranks near or at the bottom of lists of countries in Europe in terms of unemployment, average and minimum salaries and percentage of people living in relative or absolute poverty.

At the same time, the COVID-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine have affected the cost of living in Bosnia as well, while inflation has risen to 17,6% in August — its highest since 1995.

AP Photo/Kemal Softic
People march demanding the resignation of the government over the poor handling of the coronavirus pandemic in the capital Sarajevo, 6 April 2021AP Photo/Kemal Softic

In 2021 alone, protests by the likes of coal miners and medical workers all highlighted an increasingly desperate economic situation, while hundreds marched in Sarajevo to highlight the government’s inadequate response to the coronavirus pandemic.

At least 400,000 Bosnians have emigrated from the country over the course of the past eight years alone, according to the Union for Sustainable Return, a local NGO that has been researching the ongoing brain drain from Bosnia.

Its healthcare, judicial and education systems are also often perceived by ordinary citizens as corrupt, underfunded and inadequately supported.

Yet it is the political crises that grab most of the headlines domestically. For over a year, Bosnia has been amidst its most significant political crisis since the end of the war, caused by Dodik’s motions to withdraw the entity of the RS from a number of state-level institutions — including its tax authority and the small professional army — which many saw as an overt attempt at secession.

All of these issues will be on the minds of those going to the polling stations on Sunday.

Who is most likely to win?

Given the traditionally low turnout that hovers slightly above 50% and keeps decreasing in each cycle, the polls — which are few and far between compared to those in other parts of Europe — can provide some insight but are not necessarily reliable predictors.

What the polls do show is that, while the same parties are poised to remain in power, party leaders themselves might be in for a surprise.

An Ipsos poll from mid-September showed that the opposition candidate for the Bosniak Presidency, Bećirović, has a slight lead over Izetbegović and comes in at 17% to Izetbegović’s 16%.

The same poll showed that Krišto might become the first woman president of the country, with 16% of voters in favour of her over Komšić, her main competitor, who was trailing behind at 12% of the vote.

AP Photo/Armin Durgut
Bosnian Serb member of the three-way Presidency Milorad Dodik and Željka Cvijanović who is running for the Bosnian Presidency at a rally in Istočno Sarajevo, 27 September 2022AP Photo/Armin Durgut

The figures released by Ipsos also claimed that Cvijanović was in the significant lead as well, where 29% of voters supported her as the Bosnian Serb member of the Presidency, compared to Šarović’s 17%.

Having two out of three Presidency seats won by women candidates would be unprecedented — yet the concern among the more progressive voters is that both represent right-wing parties and ultra-nationalist views and would not bring about a major change in politics overall.

The state-level parliament breakdown by Ipsos showed that SDA would most likely end up with most MPs at 14%, while HDZ BiH and SNSD are to receive 10% of the vote.

Opposition parties might see a drop in support, with SDP predicted to receive 7% of votes, although it ended up having the same number of lawmakers as HDZ BiH in 2018.

Another, more recent poll by the Belgrade-based Faktor plus, which was focused on how the Bosnian Serb candidates might fare on Sunday, showed that Cvijanović stood at 35.7% to Šarović’s 29.8% on 23 September.

The same poll also shows that Dodik’s gamble with the entity presidency — thought to be spurred by his desire for a firmer grip on the RS institutions — might not pay off after all.

Despite his SNSD polling as the most popular party in the entity, with their 27% almost 10 whole points more than SDS’ 18%, Dodik could lose out to the opposition candidate Jelena Trivić, who is projected to have a 2% advantage over him on Sunday.

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