In the local elections held on November 15, after 20 years in power in Sarajevo Canton and Banja Luka, SDA (Party of Democratic Action) lost most of the mayoral positions in Sarajevo Canton municipalities. SNSD (Alliance of the Independent Social Democrats) also lost the mayoral position in Banja Luka. It should be noted that those parties would probably keep the majority in the local assemblies in those municipalities, but the victory of opposition mayoral candidates could be understood as the beginning of a new political paradigm in Bosnia and Herzegovina as a whole. It means transparent, accountable, responsive local governance. It also means the beginning of the credible fight against corruption.
The local elections were held in an atmosphere of uncertainty and concern, due to the difficult economic and health crises caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. NDI public opinion research in September and October 2020 showed persistently high levels of pessimism and dissatisfaction in government at all levels. The public’s sour mood raised questions over their willingness to engage in the local elections particularly in light of the pandemic risk, and whether they would channel their displeasure to opposition candidates. The Central Electoral Commission (CEC) recorded a turnout of 51%. The election results available so far for mayors in the largest centres, such as Sarajevo, Banja Luka, Zenica, Tuzla and Bijeljina, indicate that there is potential for the political scene in BiH to change. With local elections in Mostar also ahead, the questions of whether and how the electoral results will affect the behavior of voters in this city, 12 years after the last elections, have arisen.
The case of SDA in Sarajevo
Before the November 15 elections, SDA held municipal mayoral positions in eight of Sarajevo’s nine municipalities. SDA now holds only four mayoral positions in Sarajevo, indicating that the party suffered a major electoral defeat in BiH’s capital.
Sarajevo, the capital of BiH, is the center of economic and political power. Sarajevo Centar, one of Sarajevo’s municipalities, has a larger budget compared to any of other municipalities and towns in BiH.
The local elections in Sarajevo were won by the opposition “Četvorka” — Naša Stranka (Our Party), the Social Democratic Party (SDP BiH), Narod i Pravda (NiP - People and Justice), and Nezavisna bosanskohercegovačka lista (Independent Bosnian-Herzegovinian List). The “Četvorka” seems to have inspired something that voters have been waiting for a long time — that politics can be done in a better way, in the interest of citizens and not politicians. This hope can be described as: less corruption and more prosperity for the citizens.
Members of the “Četvorka” managed to motivate voters and win the mayoral elections in most of the municipalities in Sarajevo with this and similar messages. The principal party behind the opposition’s win is Narod i Pravda, led by its charismatic leader Elmedin Konaković, who was one of SDA’s leaders until he left the party and founded NiP. Although there are clear ideological differences between the members of the “Četvorka” on such issues as the LGBTQIA+ community, they managed to find a common ground related to other issues that are important for the citizens of Sarajevo, such as providing of new jobs, economic development, development of the local infrastructure, a more efficient response to COVID-19 pandemic, and the fight against corruption.
According to NDI local public opinion research conducted in Sarajevo-Center in September 2020, almost nine out of ten respondents said that they are very unsatisfied with the direction in which their municipality is going and very pessimistic related to the economic situation. Also, they feared mostly of further economic crisis, political unrest and another COVID-19 outbreak.
The election of Srđan Mandić (Naša Stranka), who identifies as Serb, as the new mayor in Sarajevo Centar municipality, is a strong message to everyone that ethnicity is not important and that nationalistic discourse is losing its relevance.
Here it should be mentioned that the “Četvorka” successfully ran the Sarajevo Canton with two other parties until the SDA-led coalition replaced it in late January 2020.
NDI holds that SDA has suffered a strong blow, and that it will be difficult for them to recover as SDA also lost the elections for mayors in other large centres, such as Bihać, Goražde, Tuzla, and Zenica.
The case of SNSD in Banja Luka
Public opinion research by NDI and others in October 2020 projected that the young mayoral candidate Draško Stanivuković (27) (PDP - Party of Democratic Progress) had a significant advantage over his opponent, incumbent mayor Igor Radojičić (SNSD, led by Milorad Dodik).
However, the path to victory was not easy for young Stanivuković, who received the majority of his support from younger generations.
Dodik used all means possible to prevent his party from losing Banja Luka, the economic and political center of the Republika Srpska (RS). Leading up to the election, it was evident that Dodik was abusing public funds to finance his campaign, going as far as to use a RS government helicopter to travel around RS to campaign. Dodik also continued his custom of asking for help from the Government of Serbia, whenever the elections are on the table. The prime minister of Serbia signed important construction contracts for small hydropower plants on the Drina with the Government of the RS only two days before the elections in Banja Luka, side-lining the BiH authorities.
Stanivuković’s victory in Banja Luka comes after important events that took place over the past few years. For example, civil protests in 2017 and 2018, provoked by the murder of David Dragičević, and the victory of Vukota Govedarica (SDS - Serb Democratic Party) in Banja Luka for president of the RS, stirred citizens to action. The election results in some other larger cities in the RS, such as Bijeljina and Teslić, where SDS mayoral candidates won, are the signals that Dodik slowly but surely is losing citizens’ support. The fact is that SNSD will continue to keep control over the majority of the municipalities in the RS, but this cannot compensate for the failure of the mayoral elections in Banja Luka.
The victory of opposition candidates and parties in Banja Luka, Bijeljina, and Teslić, among other municipalities in the RS, is important not only symbolically, but also practically. These towns, especially Banja Luka and Bijeljina, boast the largest budgets in the RS, which could be used to significantly improve the life standards of their citizens. The fact is that in his first appearance after the elections, Dodik threatened the citizens of Banja Luka for their support to Stanivukovic with cancelling subventions for the district heating company. Also, he announced that SNSD will initiate the procedure in the RSNA to amend the Law on Local Self-Government to limit the responsibilities of the Banja Luka’s mayor in order to take over the political power from the mayor and raise the power of the local assembly, where SNSD has the majority. That way, Dodik intends to keep control over the budgeting process and budget spending as well. We are still to see what the reaction of the new mayor and the opposition will be.
However, such victories will put wind in the sails of the opposition, which are now much more motivated. It will also allow more leeway for strategic planning ahead of the 2022 general elections, provide them with an opportunity to work on their common policies in the interest of citizens, and help ease political relations in BiH.
The case of HDZ BIH in FBiH
The Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ BiH) has remained dominant, without any major difficulty in the parts of the state where it has its voter base. There are only a few examples of their failure to achieve victory, such as in the elections in the municipality Prozor-Rama, where, HDZ 1990 (Croatian Democratic Union 1990) won the elections again.
The outcomes of the elections in Sarajevo and Banja Luka would probably make Dragan Covic, HDZ BIH leader, and Bakir Izetbegovic, SDA leader, less comfortable. The elections in Mostar are just around the corner, and it is yet to be seen if the waves of changes will come to Mostar as well. One thing is for sure - Mostar expects and deserves an open, reliable, and transparent local government that works for its citizens. High rates of unemployment, intense economic crisis induced by the COVID pandemic, corruption, and poor state of the local infrastructure demand efficient, credible, and accountable politicians that are able to suppress their differences and work together. Citizens in Mostar are energized by the changes they see happening in the rest of the country. They are aware that the working municipal coalition between the Bosniak and Bosnian Croat communities will be challenged by political conflict between them at the entity level but encouraged by shared concerns and priorities spanning both communities.
The Electoral Process:
All relevant domestic sources confirm that the same weaknesses inherent in the electoral process from past elections were also present in this election.
The year started with the appointment of the new members of the Central Election Committee (CEC) resulting in open deprecation by some of the leading political parties (predominantly SNSD and HDZ BiH), which then stalled the adoption of the budget at the state level. Without the budget including the financial funds for election implementation being approved, the Committee could not announce the election. When the budget was finally approved, and it was clear that the elections could take place, the entire world was overtaken by the COVID-19 pandemic. After postponement from the beginning of October to mid-November, these municipal elections were the first ones to be organized during the pandemic, not to mention that they are the first ones after 12 years to be organized in Mostar.
Generally speaking, nothing much has changed to improve the electoral process. Advertising on social media platforms before the formal opening of the campaign was widespread. Pre-election rallies, TV ads with disturbing content, voter pressure, abuse of public funds to finance the campaign, and a number of other activities sullied the summer and the beginning of autumn. Sporadic sanctions against the perpetrators, issued by the CEC, only to be annulled by the courts, did not amend the situation at all.
The electoral cycle was marked in particular by the minimal participation of women as candidates for mayoral positions. In the end, four women out of 425 mayoral candidates in total (out of which 29 were women mayoral candidates) were elected as mayors, three from SNSD, mostly in small municipalities with 100 to 200 voters, which is a drop of over 50% in comparison to 2016 local elections.
The CEC’s directive on restricting the number of observers at voting stations because of the COVID-19 pandemic led to mass abuse by representatives of the ruling parties in the field. Namely, they prevented observers of opposition parties from monitoring voting and ballot counting. In some places, such as Doboj, this led to harsh reactions from the opposition parties, who then announced that they will abandon the electoral process and demand that the CEC nullify the election.
One of the most problematic issues was the candidacy of fictitious parties at the local level and the purchasing of seats in polling station committees, which dodged electoral rules. For the 2020 municipal elections, a huge number of political actors were registered, 543 in total, out of which were 129 political parties, 262 independent candidates, 72 coalitions, 9 lists of independent candidates, and 71 independent candidates for mayors. Many of those nobody heard of before and were registered just for these elections. The main motive for those phantom parties and false candidates was actually to gain the seats in the polling station committees that observe the election process, either to support main players by securing the votes for them or to “sell” their seats to the interested parties so as to enlarge the number of observers. The role of the polling station committees is to lead the election process, to observe it, and to count the ballots. In some cases, polling station committees ended up consisting of the representatives of just one (usually ruling) party representatives, so they were the only one who controlled the voting and counting process.
Voting by mail also posed issues during the election. An incremental number of voters registered to vote from abroad raised the alarm both in the CEC and in most of the political parties. Compared to the 2018 general elections, the number of voters registered to vote from abroad in 2020 municipal elections has almost doubled. In total, around 130,000 citizens applied to vote from abroad. CEC rejected almost 28,000 of those applications. The rest of the around 102,000 voters approved by CEC were registered to vote in Serbia (more than 27,000), Croatia (more than 19,000), Germany (almost 18,000), and Austria (around 9,600). There were cases where some BiH citizens and some candidates claimed that their personal data were, allegedly, abused so they are registered to vote from abroad, even if their residency is in BiH. Also, in some cases, CEC identified that a large number of voters that are registered to vote from abroad yet have the same residency address in some of the neighbouring countries (in some cases more than a fifth or tenth of voters were registered on the same address).
The change of authorities in BiH’s key cities and municipalities and the opposition’s victory, although surprising in some cases, is hardly unexpected. Political elders, such as the SNSD, SDA, and even HDZ BIH (although the latter has confirmed its power in these elections), showed that they missed the opportunity to provide clear answers and efficient solutions to the questions of modern life that interest citizens, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Citizens are dissatisfied and eager for change, which they expressed by voting for the opposition for the first time in 20 years.
However, if the opposition is to become a bona fide alternative force both in the Federation of BiH and in the RS, it will have to prove that it understands citizens’ needs and that it is able to develop and implement problem-solving policies, not just focus on its own self-enrichment. The fight against corruption has to be clear and consistent. Reforms of the electoral system should begin immediately, and the strengthening of the rule of law and transparency in general will have to take centre-stage. The political changes in the biggest cities are the signals for the ruling parties, SNSD, SDA and HDZ BIH, that the reforms are inevitable, not only in the local level but on the state and entity levels as well. Would those signals be sufficient to ignite the political reforms on the broader scale? We will see in days to come.
Cooperation by and between reformers from both entities must begin at once. This is an excellent moment for all to begin improving the political and economic scene in BiH, based on expert knowledge, transparency, and trust.