Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) is the country with the most complicated internal organization in Europe. This is a consequence of the Dayton Peace Agreement, which ended the war in 1995, but also left behind a number of complex issues that have not been resolved to this day. An integral part of that peace agreement is Bosnia and Herzegovina’s present constitution.

The country has three constituent peoples (Bosniaks, Serbs, and Croats) and two entities, the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (FBiH) and Republika Srpska (RS). A third, smaller area, the Brčko District, operates under a special status. Most responsibilities are distributed between the entities. The Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina consists of ten federal units, called the Cantons, each with its own government and responsibilities. The most important decisions are taken by authorities at this lower level of government. There are also 143 municipalities in BiH: 63 in the RS and 80 in the Federation.

On Sunday, October 2, general elections will be held, where 3.3 million citizens with the right to vote will elect three members of the BiH Presidency, as well as representatives for the state, entity and cantonal parliaments. Due to the different arrangement of the entities, the president and two vice-presidents of that entity will be elected in the RS, while the heads of the entities of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina will be elected indirectly by the parliament after its constitution.

BiH’s elections come at a point in time where the political situation is rather complicated. Negotiations between key political actors on electoral reform failed. As a result, elections are held according to a law that – as both European and domestic courts have determined – discriminates against ethnic minorities, as well as – in certain administrative units – against members of constituent peoples. Additional political and inter-ethnic tensions are caused by the problem of proportional representation of Croats as the smallest of the three constituent peoples.

The role of the High Representative

Furthermore, the High Representative of the international community in BiH, the German politician Christian Schmidt, has the option to use his powers and impose certain legal solutions for the post-election formation of the government. Since 1995, a High Representative approved by the UN Security Council is supposed to guarantee peace and stability in BiH. He can dismiss elected representatives and intervene in legislation. Since August 2021, the post has been held by Schmidt, whom the RS leadership does not recognize, because Moscow wanted to abolish the position and Schmidt was thus not approved by the UN Security Council.

Schmidt had announced that he was going to make use of his powers ahead of the election, but in the face of a wave of criticism, he gave up the imposition for the time being. In any case: Due to the complicated system, it is certain that the government will have to be formed by three or more parties at both the state and lower levels.

Croatia pushes for electoral reform

In neighboring Croatia, the elections in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) are followed with great interest. Addressing the UN General Assembly on September 24, Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenković called on the international community’s High Representative to Bosnia and Herzegovina, Christian Schmidt, to exert his powers and impose an electoral reform that would ensure the equality of Croats in the October 2 general elections.

Speaking to the press later, Plenković said it was not too late for that, and claims that it was “the narrative of those who want the status quo”, which was “clear as day”. He was alluding to Bosniak leader Bakir Izetbegović, saying that Izetbegović “publicly said” that he “pretended to be negotiating” while doing everything so that there was no progress in talks on electoral reforms. “It’s not fair to pretend to be negotiating for two years and then say ‘It’s too late now’,” Plenković said. “I think it’s fair to fix what can be fixed.”

Consensus on becoming part of the EU

Depending on the dominant ethnic affiliation of their membership, parties in BiH have different views on most strategic issues for the future of the country. One of the rare issues where there is a formal consensus is joining the European Union. During the political campaigns in the pre-election period, it has been evident that almost every party program includes the goal “progress of Bosnia and Herzegovina towards membership in the European Union”. But even though everyone has declared to be in favor of this, not much has been done to meet the demands outlined in the 14 priorities of “Opinions of the European Commission”, which are a prerequisite for obtaining candidate status.

The latest research conducted by the Directorate for European Integration showed that in the event of a referendum on EU membership, 77.4 percent of citizens would vote for joining the EU, and 48 percent of respondents think that there is no alternative to BiH’s European path. It is noticeable that there is significantly less support for joining the EU among respondents in the RS entity, where Serbs predominantly live. Unlike Bosniaks and Croats, Serbs are generally opposed to BiH’s membership in the NATO, and all Serbian political parties advocate BiH’s neutrality in the Ukrainian-Russian conflict and harmonization of BiH’s policy on this issue with Serbia.

Taking up Macron’s idea of a “European Political Community”

Although Bosnia and Herzegovina has not yet been granted EU candidate status, it has recently been invited, together with 16 other non-EU countries, to join the European Political Community. The political gathering is the brainchild of French President Emmanuel Macron and aims to facilitate closer exchange between EU countries and those outside the bloc, whether by choice or because they do not currently meet membership criteria. The new European political forum will take place in Prague on October 6.

Macron has said he hopes to be able to use the gathering to improve cooperation with the EU’s partners in Europe, referring to Ukraine, which was recently granted official EU candidate status, but is unlikely to become a full member of the bloc for at least another decade. Critics have called the forum a consolation prize for failure to join the EU. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz recently backed the European Political Community, but said it “should not be an alternative to EU enlargement”.

Evolution or break-up – which way will BiH go?

It remains to be seen if Bosnia and Herzegovina’s system can evolve. For now, none of the three communities agree which future development would be desirable. This has recently led to one of the most serious political crises since the end of the war, with secession threats from Serbian entity leaders.

“It is the citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina who have the most important role in shaping the future of their country. We strongly encourage the citizens of BiH to participate in the upcoming elections on 2 October as the outcome will determine also their future and the future of Bosnia and Herzegovina.”

Peter Stano, EU Commission’s Spokesperson for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy

“All political actors in Bosnia and Herzegovina must work together to ensure free, fair and inclusive elections. As agreed in the Political Agreement of 12 June in Brussels, the EU expects all political actors to cooperate to swiftly set up legislatures and governments at State, entity and cantonal level, after the elections, in order to focus on reforms on the EU path. The EU path of Bosnia and Herzegovina is open – but it requires the country and its elected leaders to deliver on reforms,” said EU Commission’s Spokesperson for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Peter Stano on the upcoming elections.

This article is published Fridays. The content is based on news by agencies participating in the enr.