Spotlight European Integration – IV – Local elections in Mostar and Bosnia and Herzegovina: Change and Hope

Blog Post by Irma Baralija*, Vice President of Naša stranka, Bosnia & Herzegovina

Bosnia and Herzegovina is considered a potential candidate for EU membership. It formally applied for EU membership in 2016. A year ago, the European Council endorsed the Commission’s Opinion concluding that the country “does not yet sufficiently fulfil”  the political aspect of the 1993 Copenhagen Accession Criteria. The key priorities that the nation will need to fundamentally improve include conducting “elections in line with European standards” and “holding municipal elections in Mostar.” The 2020 EU progress report of Bosnia and Herzegovina indicated that “no progress was made in improving the electoral framework.” In the backdrop of these EU conclusions the recent local elections had great significance.

Elections indicate positive shifts

Local elections in Bosnia and Herzegovina were celebrated two weeks ago, on 15th November, in all municipalities except for the city of Mostar where the elections are scheduled for 20th December. Two words can best describe the results of the local elections in the country: change and hope. The biggest and probably the most significant political change happened in Sarajevo where three out of four municipal districts that form the city of Sarajevo were won by the four-party-coalition that agreed to work together in order to “liberate” the city from the hands of traditional Bosniak right-wing party. Naša stranka, member of ALDE Party, for the first time in our history, won the position of mayor of the district Sarajevo Centre, the richest and symbolically one of the most important districts in the country where nearly almost all national institutions are located, including the Presidency building. Besides Sarajevo, there were political changes happened in Banja Luka and Bijeljina, other two big cities in Republika Srpska. More surprisingly, the local elections brought about political change in some smaller municipalities such as Gorazde or Jablanica (less than 20.000 inhabitants) where social democrats won the mayoral positions.

The case of Mostar: civic activism matters

It was in 2008 when the last local elections took place in Mostar. In a rather unique case in the democratic world, the basic political rights of approximately 100.000 citizens were violated for almost a decade. The citizens of Mostar could not vote in 2012 nor in 2016 when the local elections were organised in the rest of the country because The State Parliament failed to pass amendments to the Electoral law of Bosnia and Herzegovina in order to implement the The Constitutional Court ruling from 2010. The Constitutional Court had ruled that the electoral rules for Mostar should have been adjusted so they do not discriminate people based on the place where they live or constituency they belong to. The Electoral law was finally changed in the Parliament in July this year, only after I took the case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg and won it unanimously. The ECHR ruling that came into power in the end of January this year also prescribed the period of six months for the Bosnian Parliament to make the amendments to the Electoral law and solve the case of Mostar. The ruling served to create a political momentum where the international community also stepped in and pushed the leaders of the two right wing political parties (from the Bosniak and from the Croat side) to come to an agreement around Mostar.

The end of the democratic deadlock was possible only due to the pressure and persistence of few individuals, myself included. We never gave up and proved that individual actions do matter and can make the change, and in our case can bring back democracy to Mostar. This achievement is very important. It helps alter the very different narrative of the nationalist right-wing parties which for years were trying to convince the people that changes in the society can be bought only by being representatives of two big ethnic groups and members of the two big right-wing parties. We are approaching the elections of Mostar led by this achievement and by the awareness among the people that political change occurred in other municipalities of the country just few short weeks ago.

What is the future of Bosnia and Herzegovina?

One of the factors that proved to be crucial for the result of these elections was the COVID-19 pandemic. Many citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina, especially the younger people, had the chance to watch live the demasking of the administration during the lockdown. With everyone at home glued to the media, following the instructions and the information on the rise of number of cases of infected people, we were also following with details one of the biggest scandals related to the purchase of 100 ventilators by the Federal government. Ten million Bosnia-Herzegovina Marks were given to an unknown private company specialized in sector of agriculture to buy 100 ventilators in China. The situation “exploded” when it was discovered that these ventilators were unfunctional and could not be used in our hospitals. It was finally obvious to everyone that right-wing parties did not have any capacity of managing the crisis. The many gaps in our health and judiciary system became crystal clear. This eye-opening among the citizens contributed for number of elected officials to be voted out in many municipalities.

Even though it is still early to have final conclusions, some say the other factor was quite low turnout of people on Electoral Day. Some analysts point out that many older people stayed home afraid of the pandemic, while those who went out and voted were mostly the younger generations who were not in the risk groups. These elections shows not only that so long-awaited change is actually possible, but also that there is hope that the new generations are less attached than their parents to the ethnic narratives i.e. they cannot be so easily manipulated by the “war stories and images”. To them the quality of everyday life matters.

There is reason to believe Mostar elections will show a similar outcome. Moreover, there is reason to believe these elections are the beginning of a new and better episode in our history with a clear path of Bosnia and Herzegovina towards EU membership.

* The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) condemned Bosnia-Herzegovina on October 29, 2019 for its failure to hold municipal elections in the ethnically divided city of Mostar (population of 106,000 people with 48.8 percent ethnic Croat and 44.2 percent Muslim Bosniak) for more than a decade. The suit was filed by Irma Baralija, who has been fighting this breach of rule of law and democracy preventing her to vote or run in a municipal election