Robert Frowick, the ambassador of the international supervising body, said he had made a "chairman's decision" and the elections would probably be held next April or May, which means the peace implementation force, I-For, is likely to remain throughout winter.
The US diplomat cited irregularities in the Serbs' voter registration as one reason for postponement. The other four elections scheduled for 14 September would go ahead. The decision was delayed until the last minute: the first of the 1,200 international election supervisors are due in Sarajevo today.
The announcement, following a meeting of the Provisional Elections Commission, was a surprise, because voting among refugees in Turkey and Hungary had already started. The PEC was due to decide on Friday and when it postponed its decision until yesterday, many observers thought it would be too late to cancel them.
Yesterday Mr Frowick, ambassador for the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), which is supervising the polls, said the PEC had met to consider the advisability of proceeding with the elections in the face of widespread abuse. He has faced strong pressure from the US State Department to push ahead with the elections. Mr Frowick said: "We couldn't do this on a case-by-case basis. We had to take a sweeping view".
At the weekend, authorities in Republika Srpska, the Serb half of Bosnia, said that if the municipal elections were postponed, they would hold their own. As well as irregularities in voter registration on the Serb side, opposition candidates have been harassed in the Muslim-Croat federation. In the Muslim city of Bihac, opposition supporters have been attacked with hand grenades and had election material confiscated.
Bosnia's 3 million electors will still vote for an individual for the three-person presidency of all Bosnia; for parties in an all-Bosnia assembly and for deputies to an assembly for either the Muslim-Croat federation or the Republika Srpska. In Republika Srpska they will elect a president, and in the federation an assembly in one of 10 cantons. But the elections in 109 municipalities in both halves of Bosnia have been cancelled.
The Dayton agreement which brought peace to Bosnia last November specified that presidential, national, and entity elections should take place by 14 September, and cantonal and municipal elections "if feasible".
Mr Frowick finally decided that they were not. "I took this decision after a very lengthy discussion," he said.
"The overriding factor had to be the integrity of the election process. I want to emphasise that all the rest of the elections - those that are required under the peace agreement - are on track."
The main problem concerned the registration of voters who were refugees abroad, or displaced persons driven from one part of Bosnia to another. Serbs driven out of federation territory have registered to vote where they now are, consolidating the ethnic purity of Republika Srpska, while many Muslims driven out of that area have chosen to vote - as Dayton entitles them to do - where they came from, although it is unlikely the Serbs will let them.
Under Dayton rules, the 52,000-strong peace force was mandated to supervise the elections next month and remain until 20 December. Asked what the effect of postponing the municipal elections until spring would be, Mr Frowick said: "It's up to I-For to respond. From my point of view, it would be advisable for some sort of international military force to remain here for some time."
Although some sort of Nato presence was expected after 20 December, the need to develop democratic conditions and keep the former warring factions from splitting the country in two means a large presence - including US troops - is now needed. But this will be bad news for President Bill Clinton in his election campaign.
Asked what he would do if the Serbs held their own elections, without international approval, Mr Frowick said the international community would have to decide before they did.Reuse content