Former Communists gain in Bosnia's municipal elections

In April 8 elections, other communities followed the Tuzla model - forsaking nationalist leaders' parties.

Along Tuzla's cafe-lined korzo, this run-down industrial city's pedestrian walkway, people are a little smug about the landslide reelection victory of their popular mayor, as well as the unexpected triumphs of his opposition Social Democratic Party (former Communist Party) elsewhere in Bosnia.

"It's about time other places started to catch up with us," says Danny Mihilovic, a local businessman.

Tuzla is the only Bosnian city that eschewed the leadership of nationalist parties throughout the war and in its aftermath. Since 1990, when the Social Democrat Selim Beslagic won his first term as mayor, Bosnian Muslims, Serbs, and Croats have lived together in this northeastern city.

But for the first time, the recent nationwide municipal elections issued victories for the opposition Social Democrats outside Tuzla as well. In areas with majority Bosnian Muslim populations, including the capital Sarajevo, and half the municipalities in the populous Tuzla canton, the opposition dealt heavy blows to the ruling Muslim nationalist party of Bosnian leader Alija Izetbegovic. Elsewhere, the Social Democrats put sizable dents in the Party of Democratic Action's (Muslim party's) majorities. The Social Democratic Party, which includes members of all three ethnicities, backs market-oriented economic reform, the return of refugees, and full cooperation with the Dayton peace process.

Some observers cautiously see the election results as an emerging pattern of backlash against nationalist parties across the Balkans. Recent elections in Croatia roundly ousted ruling hardliners after 10 years in power. But in Bosnian Croat and Bosnian Serb-controlled parts of Bosnia, nationalist parties retained their overwhelming dominance despite losing significant votes to opposition parties.

"The last 10 years showed us the nationalists can't run the country," says Mr. Beslagic, a former cement factory manager, in his city hall office. A heavy-set, straight-talking former Communist, Beslagic is counterpart to the Social Democratic Party's intellectual president, Zlatko Lagumdzija.

"It's very difficult to fight against nationalism here," explains Beslagic. "You have to take it slowly, step by step."

Beslagic admits his party was unable to make inroads in the Croat-dominated West Herzegovina or the Bosnian Serb entity. "First, we're going to have to see political change in Serbia if democracy is going to take hold everywhere in Bosnia," he says. But one day, he predicts, Bosnia's extremists will be relegated to the political margins with about 5 percent of the vote, "like in Western Europe."

A raft of ugly corruption scandals involving top officials undoubtedly hurt the ruling Muslim party, which had dominated not only political life but also the economy, the civil service, and the media in Bosnian Muslim-populated areas. Recently, the Tuzla canton's former prime minister, as well as its top justice and health officials, received prison sentences for pocketing state funds. Fraud cases are under way against dozens of others.

"People wanted change, and so did the international community," explains Edib Kravic, a former high-ranking official in the Muslim party, who had long criticized his own party's abuses of power. But like others, he claims the international community unfairly supported the opposition in nationwide public information campaigns.

The Social Democrats hope to ride their momentum into the fall general elections. Mr. Lagumdzija is expected to challenge Mr. Izetbegovic for the Bosnian Muslim post in the tripartite presidency, while Beslagic stands well positioned to take the top position in the powerful Tuzla canton.

But the Social Democrats are under pressure to produce tangible results - and quickly. The timing couldn't be worse. Humanitarian and international agencies gradually are pulling out of Bosnia. The corruption scandals have dampened international interest in investment projects. And the painful process of privatizing central Bosnia's heavy industry and mining operations has only just begun.

"There are going to be fewer jobs before there are more," says Amra Tinjic, a fifth-year economics student. "I have no idea what I'm going to do next year."

Critics point out that Bosnia's Social Democrats must attract more Croat and Serb voters if it intends to play a major role in the country's future. It set up offices in several cities in the Bosnian Serb entity. But most of its prominent leaders, like Beslagic and Lagumdzija, are Bosnian Muslims. The vision of a united, multiethnic Bosnia is still anathema to most Bosnian Croats and Bosnian Serbs.

"The opposition has to reach out across the ethnic borders," says Klelija Balta, a local businesswoman and community activist. "We have to treat the Serbs with respect, and try to understand how they think, rather than just tell them they're wrong all the time."

In the Bosnian Serb entity, the extreme nationalist Serbian Democratic Party took all but a handful of municipalities. But in many cities the wartime Serb Party will now be forced to share power with stronger opposition parties, particularly in the more moderate western part of the Serb entity. In Croat-controlled regions, the ruling Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) captured every Croat-dominated municipality despite low voter turnout.

The multibillion-dollar international peacekeeping mission had hoped for better results in these areas. "It's hard for me to put a positive spin on this aspect," says Gerald Knaus of the European Security Initiative, an independent think tank. "After so much money and effort these results are disappointing, but not unexpected considering that the wartime power structures still persist. Elections alone will not solve this."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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