Observers critical of intimidation at polls

Bosnia elections: European delegation at odds with Americans and ballot organisers over success of first post-war vote
Bosnia's first post-war elections passed at the weekend more peacefully than the West had dreamed possible but it was marred by intimidation and many irregularities - at least according to European observers - whose assessment was at odds with the satisfaction expressed by a US delegation and international officials who organised the ballot.

Counting began on time in the Muslim-Croat Federation but was suspended in the Srpska Republic, the other half of Bosnia, because Serb officials misunderstood their role in counting refugee votes cast abroad, mostly by Muslims expelled from Serb territory. The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), which organised the vote, said the problem had been resolved but admitted some Serb areas would not start vote-counting until today.

The ruling Muslim party complained about conditions in the Srpska Republic even before the polls closed; it was dismissed as "very vague" by Richard Holbrooke, US author of the Dayton peace plan and these elections. He admitted his delegation had visited only 20 or 30 polling stations, saying: "We did not see things to disqualify the process." He did cite one exception, a Serb-held area in Gorazde where officials slowed the Muslim vote.

The chief election monitor, Ed van Thijn, issues a report today on the fairness of the election, but, given the international desire for a happy outcome, few expect a negative report.

However, a European Union delegation led by a German, Doris Pack, was strongly critical. Asked if she thought Mr van Thijn would rule the elections "free and fair", she said: "I'm sure you cannot use those two words." She too cited Serb Gorazde, where by midday 10 times more Serbs than Muslims were able to vote, and called the Holbrooke delegation's early assessment "superficial".

Despite the fact that the elections were supposed to reverse "ethnic cleansing" by allowing Muslims to vote in their home towns, the result was a kind of apartheid, with separate polling stations set up for Serbs and Muslims in many areas. In several cases, Muslims had to queue for hours while nearby Serb stations were almost empty. And because of errors in OSCE transcriptions of electoral registers, some people were unable to vote.

Thousands of Bosnian Muslims expelled from their homes in the war did not vote because they had not registered as absentee voters in their home towns and were unwilling to cross the old front lines to cast a ballot in person.

The violence feared by Carl Bildt, who leads the civilian mission in Bosnia, and Nato commanders here, did not materialise. "We were prepared for the worst and we had a day that could be described as dull. We were dreaming of a dull day," he said.

But violence in the run-up to elections directed at opposition parties in both the Federation and the Srpska Republic, and threats against Muslims trying to return to homes in the Srpska Republic deterred many from voting. The elections were allowed to proceed despite the fact that there is nothing like full freedom of movement across the old front line, there is no freedom of the press, of assembly and of expression in the Srpska Republic, and that such freedoms are limited in the Federation. Such conditions were conducive mainly to candidates of the three nationalist parties, which feed on fear of the other.

"It looks to us as if the elections have served a very negative process - they have not been a peace-building process,' said John Fawcett of the International Crisis Group, an independent organisation working in Bosnia.

Where the voting went wrong

Initial electoral abuses reported by observers included:

t A polling station for Muslims near Serb-held Brckow positioned next to a minefield

t A second station for Muslims from Srebrenica located up an almost impassable dirt road

t Muslims asked to vote 250 metres from a mass grave that had contained their compatriots

t Serb officials crossing names off the electoral register with pencils

t And sealing tape being pulled off a ballot box because the humid conditions allegedly made it start to peel on its own accord