Vote deepens Bosnian tensions

With the top candidates fiercely at odds over Bosnia’s future, voters cast ballots in elections likely to further entrench their nation’s ethnic divisions and threaten possible EU entry.

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Some three million voters in a country uneasily split between Serbs, Bosniaks and Croats are choosing from 8000 candidates for the central and several regional parliaments, the Bosnian Serb presidency and the federal presidency.

Fifteen years after the ethnic war sparked by the breakup of Yugoslavia, and despite five postwar elections, the vote is still expected to fall along ethnic lines.

The campaign has been characterised by harsh rhetoric, with Serbs demanding secession, Croats calling for the possibility of their own autonomous region and Bosniaks – Bosnian Muslims – seeking a stronger central government.

“People in Bosnia want different things, opposite things, and they elect their representatives accordingly,” said Asim Hadrovic,46 as he left his district’s polling station.

The rivalries have kept Bosnia’s government largely at stalemate. Long and frustrating EU- and US-led negotiations over constitutional changes to simplify the political setup and strengthen the central government were put on ice earlier this year in hopes that it would be easier to find a compromise after Sunday’s elections.

But voters appear likely to re-elect the same leaders, setting the stage for another four years of drift and diminishing the possibility of a path to the EU.

That leaves the nation mired in economic hardship and political uncertainty – and as a potential jump-off point for Islamic radicalism.

Bosnia is “a weak, decentralised state,” noted the US State Department its Country Reports on Terrorism 2009 that blames Serb officials for trying to undermine federal structures.

The Serb efforts hampered attempts to combat terrorism and terrorist financing, said the report, leaving Bosnia “vulnerable to exploitation as a potential staging ground for terrorist operations in Europe.”

Political analyst Tanja Topic compared the pre-election campaign to one in 1990, when communist Yugoslavia had just collapsed and Bosnia split along ethnic lines over whether it should become part of greater Serbia or be an independent multiethnic country.

“So for exactly 20 years we have been spinning around in the same political pattern,” Topic said.

The postwar deal split the country into two highly autonomous regions – one for the Serbs and the other shared by the Bosniaks and Croats.

The two regions are loosely linked by a central government, parliament and a three-member presidency.

In addition to parliamentary elections, Bosniaks and Croats will also vote on Sunday for the parliaments of the 10 cantons in their ministate, while Serbs will elect the president of their Bosnian republic .

The EU has told Bosnia that if it wishes to join it must create a stronger central government, which the country’s Serbs vehemently oppose. Serb Prime Minister Milorad Dodik has consistently argued against the union.

“Only the Serb Republic is self-sustaining, Bosnia-Herzegovina is not,” Dodik, now running for the Serb republic presidency, told a pre-election rally.Comments from Bosniak candidate Haris Silajdzic – running for re-election for the Bosniak seat of the presidency he shares with a Serb and a Croat, reflected the divide with Dodik.

“We are trying to amend our constitution in such a way that Bosnia-Herzegovina becomes more democratic and more in line with its own past – a unique multicultural, multiethnic society,” he said on a recent campaign stop.