Bosnia set to vote amid political deadlock and pessimism

Image source, Reuters
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Votes will be cast for the state presidency, federal parliaments and local authorities

Bosnian voters go to the polls on Sunday to elect national and local representatives, but progress towards integration with the EU and economic revival has been slow.

It is the seventh election since the US-brokered Dayton peace agreement ended the 1992-1995 war between Bosnia's main ethnic groups - Muslims (Bosniaks), Serbs and Croats.

Over the past two decades successive governments have pledged to bring the country closer to the EU and Nato. But a constitutional reform has stalled and the country is plagued by ethnic divisions, excessive bureaucracy and corruption.

Bosnia remains divided into two parts locally referred to as "entities" - the Serb Republic (Republika Srpska) and the Muslim-Croat Federation - and it is still supervised by the international community.

In 2009 came a European Court of Human Rights ruling demanding that the state constitution be amended to allow members of ethnic minorities to run for senior posts. It was a precondition for starting EU accession talks - but remains unheeded.

In a bid to break the deadlock, EU leaders recently announced they would no longer insist on the constitutional deal but focus instead on boosting economic growth and joint infrastructure projects, as a possible way of bringing the two entities closer together.

Stagnation and corruption

The stagnant economy and high unemployment have left Bosnia one of the poorest countries in Europe.

Floods in May - the worst in the country's recent history - only compounded the problems.

In February violent mass protests erupted, revealing deep disillusionment with the political and economic elites.

Image source, Reuters
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There was a big clean-up after government buildings were attacked in February

Recent corruption probes targeting senior officials in both entities have been welcomed by local media as a step in the right direction. But pundits argue that little is being done to narrow the gap between those in power - generally seen as selfish opportunists - and the ordinary people, many of whom are poor.

The EU recently warned it could cancel key projects over the leaders' failure to jointly manage the aid from EU pre-accession funds.

Calls for change

The latest country report by the International Crisis Group openly calls for the Dayton agreement to be revisited and urges a "new constitution and bottom-up political change". Such a reform, it argues, would open up politics to people who were not narrowly focused on ethnic differences.

"Dayton acts as a mirror of the past, not a roadmap for the future. It keeps the country trapped in ill thought-out, internationally-imposed tasks", says Hugh Pope, ICG's Europe and Central Asia Deputy Program Director. "It is time to treat Bosnia normally, without extraneous tests or High Representatives."

And the US Embassy Charge d'Affaires, Nicholas Hill, recently urged Bosnians to throw their support behind leaders who share their priorities, not just their background.

Image source, Reuters
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Floods and landslides in May damaged thousands of homes

Cossacks and jihadists

The election campaign has been divisive, with politicians on all sides trading accusations over the state of the country and promising to improve the situation if re-elected.

Nationalist tensions resurfaced with reports about Bosnian jihadist fighters in Syria and Iraq and the arrival of some 150 Russian Cossacks in the Serb Republic. They were ostensibly taking part in military re-enactments as part of World War II victory celebrations.

Bosnian Federation media accused the Cossacks of seeking to stir up trouble. TV footage showed their leader Nikolai Dyakonov commanding a Cossack unit in Crimea - the Ukrainian peninsula annexed by Russia in March. It suggested their real aim was to help the Bosnian Serb president, Milorad Dodik, if he were to lose the election.

Who is running for election?

A total of 65 parties and 24 coalitions have been certified by the Central Election Commission to run for various posts.

At state level, voters will be choosing the three members of the joint presidency - one from each main ethnic group - and the 42 delegates to the lower house of the state parliament.

In the Federation, voters will be casting ballots for 98 delegates to the lower house of parliament, as well as delegates to all 10 cantonal assemblies.

Voters in the Serb Republic will be electing the entity's president and two vice-presidents, and 83 delegates to parliament.

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