A lot of change, a lot of the same: the 2022 general elections in Bosnia and Herzegovina

Election campaign posters in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Sept. 28, 2022. (EPA Photo)

A lot of change, a lot of the same: the 2022 general elections in Bosnia and Herzegovina

By Damir Kapidžić (University of Sarajevo)

On October 2nd, 2022, Bosnia and Herzegovina held its ninth general elections since the end of the Bosnian War in 1995. Elections were held for three levels of government under the complex system of governance established through the Dayton Peace Agreement. Apart from the national level these include two subnational entities, the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Republika Srpska, and ten local-level cantons within the Federation part of the country. Depending on where they reside, voters could vote in up to four electoral contests, which include a tripartite presidency, 14 parliaments at three different levels—the national, entity, and local level in Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, as well as a directly elected subnational presidency in Republika Srpska. The Central Electoral Commission confirmed 72 political parties, 38 coalitions and 17 independent candidates for the 2022 elections. Under an open list system, voters can choose individual candidate, with a total of 7257 on the ballots. The outgoing government at most of these levels was comprised of ethnonationalist parties and leaders who have been unwilling to cooperate and cerate joint policies in their past term, including on issues of constitutional and electoral reform.

The politics and party system of Bosnia and Herzegovina are heavily influenced by ethnic politics. Almost all political competition happens within ethnic party subsystems, among parties representing one of the three major ethno-religious groups: Bosniak Muslim, Catholic Croats and Orthodox Christian Serbs. The most relevant ethnic parties among Bosniaks in these elections are the Party for Democratic Action (SDA), People and Justice (NIP), and the People’s European Union (NES); among Serbs the Alliance of Independent Social Democrats (SNSD), the Serb Democratic Party (SDS), and the Party of Democratic Progress (PDP); and among Croats the Croatian Democratic Union of Bosnia and Herzegovina (HDZ BiH), and the Croatian Democratic Union 1990 (HDZ 1990). Additionally, there are multiethnic parties that regularly gain a significant share of the vote but mostly compete for Bosniak votes. The most relevant are the Social Democratic Party (SDP), Democratic Front (DF), and Our Party (NS). Throughout the past eight electoral cycles there has been almost no movement of voters between parties representing different ethnic groups, even though there has been significant competition within the ethnic party subsystems.

In the runup to the elections, governing parties attempted to, but did not manage to complete a reform of the electoral system, even with assistance from several international organizations. The electoral system includes several discriminatory provisions that do not allow all citizens of the country to run for office. There are several rulings of the European Court of Human Rights against Bosnia and Herzegovina, of which the most famous is the Sejdić and Finci verdict in 2009, that require the country to amend its constitution and electoral law. The most relevant international organization in this regard, which can also be considered as part of the political system of Bosnia and Herzegovina, is the Office of the High Representative. It was established to ensure the implementation of the Dayton Peace Agreement and holds extensive extralegal powers to enact laws and dismiss elected officials. The office is currently held by the former German MP Christian Schmidt. These were to be the fourth held under an electoral system that was confirmed as discriminatory. Prior to the elections the High Representative enacted decisions to ensure adequate financing to the Central Electoral Commission to organize the October elections, a decision which was purposefully delayed by the HDZ BiH and used as a bargaining tool in electoral reform negotiations. The High Representative also made a set of changes to the Electoral Law to increase the transparency and integrity of the electoral process and prevent misuse of public resources for campaigning.

Elections in Bosnia and Herzegovina are among the most regular in the entire world happening every four years on a regular basis. The turnout for these elections was somewhat lower than in previous contests with turnout around 50% (in 2018 it was 53%). This may be an undercount as electoral rolls are not updated and include citizens who emigrated abroad recently and have foreign permanent residency status. The day of elections went rather smoothly with several smaller incidents of electoral irregularities, but no major disruptions. Everything changed as soon as polls closed at 7pm, as Christian Schmidt made a public address one hour later with a decision to impose new changes to the subnational Constitution of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the national Election Law, on election night. The changes did not affect the direct votes of citizens but introduced new rules and time limits to form indirectly elected bodies in the Federation. Most notable, the decision enlarged the first parliamentary chamber of the Federation, the Federal House of Peoples, from 58 to 80 members to ensure greater proportionality in appointing ethnic representatives among cantons and limited the use of ethnic veto rights. While the decision itself is beneficial the timing could have not been worse and less democratic. Citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina who just voted were stunned by the decision of how their vote might (indirectly) influence the composition of parliament, after the fact of casting the ballot. The implications of such a badly timed decision and the effects it might have on undermining trust in democracy in Bosnia and Herzegovina are still uncertain.

While the official results are slowly coming in, the ballots for the Presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina have largely been counted. In this contest residents in Republika Srpska could vote for one Serb candidate among the two on the ballot: Željka Cvijanović (SNSD) and Mirko Šarović (SDS), while in the federation they could vote either for a Croat candidate, Željko Komšić (DF) or Borjana Krišto (HDZ BiH), or a Bosniak candidate, Denis Bećirović (SDP), Mirsad Hadžikadić (Platform for Progress) or Bakir Izetbegović (SDA), but not for both. The three winning candidates under an ethnic-slate plurality, were Željka Cvijanović from the party that already held this office and who promised to continue the policy of weakening central institutions to the benefit of subnational Republika Srpska; Denis Bećirović who became the first Bosniak member nominated by a multiethnic party with support of a broad coalition of Bosniak and civic-oriented parties and who aims to strengthen the office; and the incumbent Željko Komšić from a civic-oriented party who represents Croats but does not have any support from Croat parties or the Croat electorate. The election results for the tripartite presidency have limited impact as the competencies of the office are limited, but crucially include the nomination of the next Prime Minister. It is likely that the current dysfunction of this collective office will continue, but with less theatrics as was the case over the past four years. Some change is evident, but not enough to move the country away from a dominance of ethnic politics.

Other results, especially for parliament are still not conclusive. Slow counting and tallying have plagued elections in Bosnia and Herzegovina for several electoral cycles and this one is no exception. Preliminary results are difficult to interpret as the contest is within three ethnic party subsystems, the winners of which will eventually form a multiethnic post-electoral governing coalition at the national level. In this regard, the second ballot was for the members of the House of Representatives of the BiH Parliament. This lower chamber of the bicameral national assembly has (only!) 42 members of which 21 are directly elected from the Federation in five multi-member constituencies, and 9 from Republika Srpska in three multi-member constituencies. Additional entity-wide compensation mandates are awarded to ensure proportionality, 7 in the Federation and 5 in Republika Srpska. Here the results are still not conclusive but indicate a further fragmentation of the vote with possibly up to 15 parties entering parliament, the largest number so far. Preliminary results indicate continued dominance of HDZ BiH among the Croat parties, as well as a strong show of SNSD within the Serb party subsystem which may be diluted by a large number of small Serb parties from Republika Srpska that passed the 3% census. There is more contest within the Bosniak subsystem that (in this case) also includes multiethnic parties. The SDA has a majority of votes, but the combined share of the Bosniak-multiethnic opposition may be enough to allow them to participate in forming the next national government. The national government needs to be confirmed by representative from both entities and represent all major ethnic groups under a power-sharing setup with extensive ethnic veto rights. In any case we can expect protracted and slow negotiations, as well as a lot of horse-trading and political gamble, among parties that will eventually form a grand coalition to confirm the Prime Minister in the Parliamentary Assembly and divide offices and ministerial posts between them.

At subnational level the results are even less conclusive, especially in the Federation and some local-level cantons. In Republika Srpska the incumbent SNSD has secured a large enough share of the vote to allow them to continue governing, possibly with a smaller coalition partner. The same is also true in cantons where Croats are the majority and where the HDZ BiH, in coalition with several smaller parties, has managed to win the vote. Elsewhere, such as in Sarajevo, Mostar or Tuzla, the results are still inconclusive and government will need to include several parties in coalition, but with no provisions for ethnic power-sharing. The most inconclusive results are the Federation level, where the current malaise of discord is likely to continue (the Federal Parliament has not confirmed the subnational government after the last elections, with the incumbent government in office since 2014 on a technical mandate). In the Federation the Croat HDZ BiH will most likely be able to choose whether to form a government with their former Bosniak partners from the SDA, or with the Bosniak-multiethnic opposition. In any case, with the election night impositions from the Office of the High Representative, the time to form a Federal (subnational) government should be sped up.

The election results will be confirmed in about one month, but government formation is likely to take much longer. After the 2010 elections it took over one year to form a national government because of disputes at the Federation level. This time around we might expect a similar situation if the Federation remains dysfunctional, despite the High Representatives impositions. Some change is evident as multiethnic and civic-oriented parties and candidates received a larger share of the vote, also winning two of three seats in the tripartite Presidency. At the same time ethnic parties remain dominant and are likely to shape both government formation and the politics of the country in the next four year.