Bosnians shape up for voting challenge

Christopher Bellamy, in Mostar, unravels the tangled web of multi- ethnic elections
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The Independent Online
In exactly four weeks time, 3 million Bosnians - 850,000 of them refugees - will vote in five separate elections on the same day. The five ballot papers will be colour-coded to match the five ballot boxes. Two thousand observers from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) will oversee the proceedings, which are stunning in their Balkan complexity.

Although the OSCE officials in Bosnia have striven to organise the elections, even they have to work hard to understand exactly what is supposed to happen on 14 September. To inflict elections of this scale upon a population unaccustomed to any form of democracy after nearly four years of civil war and disruption seems unbelievably ambitious. On Tuesday the international crisis group published a report which said the preconditions for the elections - including freedom of movement, of association, and access to media - do not exist, and that the OSCE should withdraw its certificate.

There are 27,824 candidates from 55 political parties vying for hundreds of seats, ranging from the three in the three-man Bosnian presidency, down through an assembly for all Bosnia, assemblies for the two mini- states - Serb and Muslim-Croat - within Bosnia, for 10 cantons, and down to 109 municipalities, or opstinas.

The 850,000 refugees are the greatest problem. Under the Dayton agreement, they can vote where they are, where they used to live, or where they would like to live. In practice, only the first looks likely. Although the peace implementation force, I-For, which is to provide security and back up for the OSCE, is supposed to guarantee freedom of movement, it is unlikely more than a few of the "ethnically cleansed" will trudge home to vote, and difficult to imagine that in remote areas they will not face harassment from the new occupiers.

The second problem is the dichotomy between the aims of Dayton - a restoration of a united, multi- ethnic Bosnia - and the reality, which is that Bosnia is divided in two.

The structure of the elections mirrors the self-contradictory state. The presidency will consist of a team of three: a Serb, a Croat and a "Bosniac", the term used by the OSCE to denote the mainly Muslim people who are the keenest supporters of a single state. There are currently eight candidates for the "Bosniac" seat, four for the Croat and four for the Serb.

Next, the 3 million Bosnians will vote for the house of representatives of Bosnia and Herzegovina. There are 14 Serb seats, and 28 for representatives from the Croat and Muslim - or Bosniac - federation. There are currently 103 Serb candidates and 200 from the federation. So, although the presidency and the house of representatives rule Bosnia-Herzegovina, even they are divided on ethnic lines. Below this, Bosnia itself is divided. The Muslims and Croats will choose from 722 candidates to fill 140 seats in the house of representatives of the federation. Those in the Serb-controlled area will choose from 803 to fill 140 seats in the national assembly of the Republika Srpska. The Serbs will also vote for a presidency of the Republika Srpska, which will comprise two people chosen from 14 candidates.

Deprived of the opportunity to elect their own president, the Muslims and Croats then get to elect the assemblies of the 10 cantons in the federation - a level of government denied to the Serbs. There are 1,937 candidates for 444 seats.

It is here that the Muslim-Croat federation begins to look less like a federation. Having agreed to abolish the Croat mini-state of Herzeg- Bosnia on 1 September, the Croats are expected to recreate it in another form two weeks later when they win cantons 7, 8 and 10, thereby creating a strong andcohesive Croat power-base.

Under the terms of the agreement, they are not allowed to rule both the so-called "mixed" cantons - the scene of the worst fighting in the Muslim- Croat war. These are number 7, around the Neretva river, including Mostar, which the Croats have always coveted as their capital, and 6, the Lasva valley including the Croat pockets around Vitez and Kiseljak. Observers believe the Croats are encouraging their people from the Lasva valley to vote in the Neretva canton, effectively sacrificing the Lasva valley to create a contiguous Croat-controlled region.

Lastly come the municipal elections, within the 109 opstinas, plus a number of extra constituencies created where opstinas lie astride the inter-entity boundary line between Republika Srpska and the federation. There will be about 150 sets of municipal elections in all.

The elections to the 42 seats in the all-Bosnia house of representatives, to the 140-strong assemblies of the federation and of Republika Srpska, and to the canton and opstina assemblies will be by proportional representation. The elections to the presidency of all Bosnia and to the presidency of Republika Srpska will be by a single direct ballot of voters in the Serb area. The Bosniac and Croat representatives in the presidency will also be directed by a single direct ballot.

So far, Mostar is the only place in Bosnia which has held an election. The turnout, on 30 June, was a remarkable 58 per cent of the roll - remarkable because many of those registered to vote could not because they were elsewhere, as refugees. The figure of 58 per cent therefore represents a virtually complete turn-out by all those able to vote in Mostar.

"It was a test as to how elections would work. A dress rehearsal", said Folmer Kristensen, the Danish OSCE elections officer in Mostar. "It was fascinating. People put on their Sunday best. They crossed the confrontation line and met friends they hadn't seen for three years".

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