Bosnia and Hercegovina politics: This year's elections will determine the path ahead for BiH

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Economist Intelligence Unit
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Politics, News Analysis
Political Geography
Bosnia and Herzegovina

This year's elections will determine the path ahead for BiH

The October 2018 presidential and parliamentary elections in Bosnia and Hercegovina (BiH) may prove pivotal in terms of BiH's prospects of possible Euro-Atlantic integration. An unresolved dispute over the Electoral Law threatens to undermine the elections' legitimacy. Nationalist rhetoric is sure to surface in the lead-up to October, and deep disagreements in the Federation entity as well as strong opposition to Euro-Atlantic integration in the Republika Srpska (RS) entity are also likely to persist.

A general election is due by October 2018, when Bosnians will vote for their respective national presidency representative, deputies in the state-level House of Representatives, and presidents and legislatures of the two entities, the mostly Bosniak-Croat Federation and the Serb-majority RS. No major figures, including incumbents, have declared their candidacies yet. The Central Election Commission has confirmed that the elections will go ahead on schedule-most likely on October 7th-although there have been efforts to delay them. The primary Bosnian Croat party, the Croatian Democratic Union of BiH (HDZ BiH), claims that the current voting formula, which is meant to ensure ethnic proportionality, is to the disadvantage of Bosnian Croats, and a December 2016 ruling by the state Constitutional Court on a related case supports this argument.

Electoral Law reform

The Central Electoral Commission is encouraging all interested parties to broker an agreement, but has also insisted that the 2018 elections will occur even if there is no reform of the Electoral Law. Any changes to the Electoral Law must be finalised by the end of the first week of May 2018-an unlikely prospect. The international community in BiH has strongly endorsed holding elections this year; the more immediate question is whether 2018 will be just another election year for BiH or whether citizens will seize the opportunity for social and economic reform. On the one hand, nationalist themes will become evident in the months leading up to voting day-a predictable feature of campaign season in BiH. On the other hand, the vote may signal an exit of some major political figures, or at least a change in their formal roles.

The main players

In the RS, Milorad Dodik, the president, has dominated politics for 12 years; however, he cannot run for re-election because of term limits, which cannot exceed two consecutive four-year terms. There is some speculation that he will run for the Serb position in the BiH tripartite presidency, or that he will return to the post of prime minister of the RS, which he held in 2006-10. Although his party, the Alliance of Independent Social Democrats (SNSD), is losing some of its appeal, it is less likely that the opposition will put forward more successful candidates in the RS. We expect the SNSD to maintain the majority share of the RS assembly and Milorad Dodik to remain the de facto Bosnian Serb leader, although in what official capacity is unclear.

In the Federation, although the process is moving forward, the entity entered 2018 without a final budget because of disagreements in the ruling coalition consisting of the Party of Democratic Action (SDA) and other small parties. Passing the budget is one of the requirements for unlocking the second tranche of funds from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). We expect elected Federation officials to resolve the budget crisis. One of the major divisive issues in 2017 Federation politics was the revived notion of introducing a Croat entity in BiH, which is likely to persist. Bosniak opposition to the informal proposal to create a third entity in turn suggested banning the term "Herceg Bosna", the name of a 1990s wartime Bosnian-Croat entity that attempted to separate from BiH.

At the state presidency level, major changes at the country's highest political body are likely. The current Serb member of the presidency, Mladen Ivanic, is considered a relative moderate and defeated Mr Dodik's choice for the position in the 2014 general election by fewer than 8,000 votes. A victory by a member of the SNSD for the Serb position, perhaps by Mr Dodik himself, in October would probably paralyse movement towards EU and NATO membership. It is also possible that Mr Ivanic will attempt to become president of the RS.

Bakir Izetbegovic, the incumbent Bosniak member of the presidency, has served two terms and thus cannot run for re-election. It is unclear who will succeed him; nevertheless, a candidate from Mr Izetbegovic's party, the SDA, is a likely favourite to win. The competition will be between Mr Izetbegovic's successor and a challenger from the second-largest Bosniak party, the Alliance for a Better Future of BiH (SBB BiH), led by Fahrudin Radoncic. Both parties favour integrating BiH with the West, although they also espouse Bosniak nationalism and look to Turkey as a regional ally, especially the SDA. The current Bosnian Croat member of the BiH presidency, Dragan Covic, is likely to maintain his advantage over potential opponents.

The 2018 elections will affect BiH's EU policy

The election results will have implications on BiH's progress towards Euro-Atlantic integration. In 2017 BiH moved closer to satisfying the conditions to activate NATO's Membership Action Plan; however, Mr Dodik reiterated his vow to prevent BiH's NATO candidacy from progressing without Serbia also joining the military alliance. If Mr Dodik maintains control over the RS, which is likely, and if a candidate from his party wins the Serb position in the BiH presidency, which is also possible, then BiH's progress towards NATO accession could be seriously undermined.

Other efforts to meet international commitments, such as qualifying for IMF funding, could also be derailed if voters return parties with very different political agendas to the state-level assembly. The Electoral Law issue, which is unlikely to be resolved before the elections, also has the potential to lead to a major crisis if, after the elections, Bosnian Croat parties determine that the current formula is disadvantageous to them and they refuse to participate in coalitions at the Federation and state levels.

With ten months until the election deadline, we expect the Electoral Law issue to remain unresolved and that nationalist rhetoric on all three sides will characterise the campaigns of the major parties. The greatest likelihood is that voters will return mostly Bosniak SDA and Croat HDZ representatives in the Federation and at the state level. In the RS we expect Mr Dodik and his SNSD to continue their supremacy of Bosnian Serb politics.

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