Bosnia's Byzantine Balloting

Voting populations will be moved about in an effort to create ethnic advantage, voter safety will be difficult, and the Serbs could come out on top

The Sept. 14 Bosnian elections pose difficult questions of strategy for each of the sides in that war-torn country.

At stake are the three-man presidency and house of representatives of the new Dayton-mandated Bosnian national government. Also in play are the top offices in the two semi-autonomous "entities" within Bosnia - the Muslim-Croat Federation and the Bosnian Serb entity called the "Republika Srpska."

The question of strategy has been opened up by fluid election rules that permit a substantial choice concerning where to vote. A Bosnian who has been forced from his home by the war - as a refugee or displaced person - has been offered four alternatives.

He can vote at his place of residence in 1991 (when the last census was taken), where he lived in 1992 before the war started, or where he currently lives, if it is within the country.

In an unprecedented election rule, he can also choose an almost hypothetical venue - where he "intends to live in the future," without any ties to property, employment, or family in the new town.

Nationalist political parties have thus had an open field to try to influence how the vote is distributed geographically between the federation and the Republika Srpska, and among towns.

Shifting voters around

The Muslim party of Alija Izetbegovic, the Party of Democratic Action (SDA), would like to ensure that enough displaced Muslims brave the voting process in the hostile confines of the Republika Srpska to elect Muslim candidates to the national assembly there - even though that legislature will be dominated by the Serbian nationalist party. It is widely expected that sooner or later the Republika Srpska will try to secede and affiliate with the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. The Muslim opposition in the legislature is seen as a way of raising the alarm if secessionist moves are afoot.

The SDA also wants to assure the election of Muslim mayors in towns in the Drina Valley near the Yugoslav border, though these local elections have been put off by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

The Muslims face a countervailing pressure to retain refugee voters within the Muslim-Croat Federation. Under Dayton, the collective presidency of Bosnia will consist of a Serb from the Republika Srpska, and a Croat and a Muslim from the Federation. The offices are ethnically discriminatory by law. The OSCE has decided that the voting must be territorial. A Muslim returning to the Drina Valley to vote for the national assembly of the Republika Srpska can't choose a Muslim for the national presidency.

This disenfranchisement may bring Serb dominance of the national presidency. Under Dayton, the candidate getting the most votes becomes chairman of the collective presidency. There are approximately 1.4 million Bosnian Muslims eligible to vote, as opposed to 1 million Bosnian Serbs. But only 1 million Muslims are registered in the federation, and almost all Serbs are registered in the Republika Srpska. Since Muslims voting outside the federation cannot cast their presidential ballot for a Muslim, hard-line Serb presidential candidate Momcilo Krajisnik - of Radovan Karadzic's Serbian Democratic Party - could slide into the Bosnian chairmanship.

This would be bad news for the fledgling national government. Its institutions will never be allowed to function, Mr. Krajisnik has told some observers.

The Muslims' strategic problem is increased by internal dissension. Mr. Izetbegovic has been challenged for the Muslim seat by the more moderate Haris Silajdzic, leader of the liberal Party for Bosnia-Herzegovina. Mr. Silajdzic was physically attacked by SDA thugs early in the campaign.

If the Muslim vote splits (Silajdzic may draw as many as 100,000 votes), it will ease Krajisnik's way. Silajdzic cannot drop off the ballot, and Izetbegovic has been unwilling to seek a coalition.

From the Serb side, Belgrade has used the OSCE "future residence" rule as an opportunity to steer Serb refugee voters to Drina Valley towns where they could provide tipping balances to prevent Muslims from winning local offices. In late August, the OSCE announced that manipulation of the rule was evident and postponed local elections.

But "future residence" voting is also part of the current election, and Belgrade's manipulation depresses Muslim chances to gain a foothold in the Republika Srpska's national assembly.

There is another election rule that poses serious problems: the requirement that voting take place in person in disputed towns. The danger of violence is exacerbated under the plan - not required by Dayton - that calls for Bosnians to show up in person to vote in cleansed towns where they intend to live in the future, rather than voting by mail or at a home-district voting center.

Crossing lines of separation

As many as 100,000 Muslim and Croat voters may seek to cross the NATO-patrolled zone of separation to vote. International police monitors are planning to escort bus convoys along "voter routes," and polling sites will be moved near the highway. Voters will be searched for weapons before they board the buses, and no posters or flags will be permitted.

In addition, voters will not be allowed to visit elsewhere in their electoral district on voting day, and must exit immediately on the same buses. (Dayton's right to freedom of movement will take a one-day back seat to the completion of the voting.)

The whole thing is extremely chancy. Busloads of Muslim refugees and Serb refugees - who have lost everything in the war - will encounter each other in towns where friends and relatives died. There is no special police force for the election, beyond the unarmed International Police Task Force and the back-up provided by the international Implementation Force.

The recent incident at Mahala - where Muslims crossing the zone of separation near American military headquarters at Tuzla were violently attacked by local Bosnian Serb civilians and police - does not bode well. The confused violence of that clash - the murkiness of who was armed and who started it, and ending in UN police monitors being taken hostage at gunpoint - is worrisome so close to the election.

Election planners have been counting on the fact that the Republika Srpska wants the national election for the presidency to proceed smoothly. The Bosnian Serbs believe that the election will give international standing to their government. But former combatants may not heed this calculated policy. And when municipal elections proceed separately, violence also may ensue.

There is no magic to voting in person. Ballots can be cast in one place and counted in another. Venue rules should protect safety, rather than make voting day a first-time, overextended experiment in mass-scale freedom of movement. This is sensible for a society trying to put fighting behind it.

*Ruth Wedgwood is senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and professor of law at Yale University. She recently returned from Bosnia.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Bosnia's Byzantine Balloting
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today