In 2017, public opinion research conducted by NDI revealed that 85 percent of citizens in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) believe that politicians use existing ethnic tensions for political gain. More than two decades since the Dayton agreement ended inter-ethnic war in BiH, political competition remains largely aligned along ethnic lines, and public discourse often focuses on the division of power among ethnic groups. The competing interests of these groups, and deep-seated mistrust between them, have contributed to long-standing political conflicts at all levels of government, creating frustration among citizens and hindering reform efforts necessary to advance the country’s democratic transition and achieve benchmarks for European Union (EU) candidacy status.
In light of these challenges, NDI has worked with political parties across the ethnic and political spectrum since 2004 to promote dynamic, issue-based dialogue and foster cross-partisan reforms that are responsive to citizens’ needs. Following a collaborative process to analyze challenges in the democratic transition process, NDI helped parties draft a declaration on their goals in the 21st century. On September 28, 2017, NDI gathered representatives of 19 of 22 major political parties in the mountain region of Jahorina to sign this joint declaration. By providing a forum for parties to gather and discuss common challenges, NDI facilitated a rare example of dialogue across deep partisan and ethnic divides.
The parties pledged to fulfill an essential intermediate role between citizens and governing institutions, and to increase public outreach to create policies addressing the needs of people. Parties agreed to support comprehensive and political inclusion to fight social prejudices and stereotypes, and to increase political dialogue and cooperation to advance the country on its path toward EU membership. The declaration proved a milestone in BiH, where parties often fail to compromise and reform progress is burdened by nationalistic issues, which has stifled political consensus and effective policy solutions for more than a decade.
If we don’t have democracy within parties, how can we expect that the same parties will respect parliamentary norms and behave according to democratic principles?
Irfan Cengic, Secretary General, Social Democratic Party
In an effort to advance cross partisan reform among the next generation of political leadership, NDI has supported youth members of political parties. For youth in BiH, the political process can feel out of reach and out of touch. Young people often find themselves excluded from highly centralized political party structures that struggle to respond to young citizens’ top concerns, such as unemployment.
In early 2017, youth representatives from eight of the major political parties established a working group to draft policy proposals reflective of youth interests. With NDI’s technical expertise, the working group designed an outreach plan that included travelling to municipalities across the country to gather feedback from fellow youth and civil society organizations on their policy proposals. The information from these consultations was used to develop a joint declaration on youth priorities. On May 24 in the coastal city of Neum, representatives of the working group presented the declaration, the Neum Declaration on Youth Priorities, to members of parliament representing each of the eight political parties.
The Declaration resonates with party leadership who want to appeal to young voters ahead of 2018 general elections.Like the Jahorina Declaration, this is a positive example of cross-party cooperation. It provides a model for continued collaboration among youth in political parties across ethnic and entity divides, as well as among youth and senior party leadership.
The success of the Jahorina and Neum declarations are rare models of cooperation – a feat seldom achieved in Bosnia and Herzegovina. In a country where ethnic division and partisan conflict continue to compromise the constructive political discourse needed to support citizen interests, the inter-party collaboration is important. Cooperation among the 19 major political parties in BiH, and party youth branches, can help achieve a more pragmatic, constructive and coherent system to reform economic and social policy.