Bosnia: Old Parties Face New Challengers as Elections Approach

Elections will be taking place in Bosnia on 7 October for the three-member state presidency and for the institutions of the country’s two entities, the Bosnian Federation and the Republika Srpska. The political parties across Bosnia have already begun preparing for the electoral contest which lies ahead. The campaign is set to see the main, governing, Bosniak and Serb parties facing significant challenges to their established positions.


Is the Electoral Dominance of the SDA Under Threat? In the forthcoming elections the Party of Democratic Action (SDA) will seek to retain its control over the Bosniak (Muslim) position in the state presidency and its status as the leading Bosniak political party.  The October 2014 elections saw Bakir Izetbegovic, the SDA leader, securing a clear victory over his main rival Fahrudin Radoncic, the head of the Alliance for a Better Future for Bosnia (SBB), and confirmed the SDA as the largest party representing Bosniak voters.


In the forthcoming 2018 elections Izetbegovic and the SDA are set to face increased pressure from new political opponents. Bakir Izetbegovic took over as leader of the SDA following the death of Sulejman Tihic in September 2014, and was officially confirmed as party leader at the SDA party congress in May 2015. As leader Bakir Izetbegovic has derived a certain degree of prestige from the fact that he is the son of the party’s founder and Bosnia’s first President, Alija Izetbegovic. Bakir Izetbegovic’s leadership has, however, been characterised by increasing authoritarianism and accusations of corruption. His style of leadership appears to be modelled on the religious traditionalism of the Turkish leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.


Over the last year there have been a series of splits within the ranks of the SDA. At the May 2015 SDA congress Senad Sepic lost his position as Vice-President of the party. Sepic had advocated the modernisation of the SDA and its transformation into European style party of the centre-right. He had significant support amongst younger members of the party, and strong international contacts. Over the following two years Sepic became an increasing vocal internal party critic, resisting attempts by the leadership to marginalise him. In July 2017 Sepic and two other SDA MPs, Sadik Ahmetovic and Salko Sokolovic finally left the party. In September 2017 they founded a new party, the Independent Block, with Sepic as leader.


In February 2018 Elmedin Konakovic, the popular head of the Sarajevo regional government and a former basket ball player announced that he was leaving the SDA. On 22 March Konakovic established a new political party called People and Justice. On 18 April  Sepic’s Independent Block and Konakovic’s People and Justice announced that they had come to an agreement on co-operation prior to and after October’s elections. The end of April also saw the formation of the Movement for Democratic Action (PDA) with Mirsad Kukic being chosen as the party’s leader. The PDA’s main centre of strength is the Tuzla region (central Bosnia) where Senad Alic is the party’s chief organiser. Bakir Izetbegovic has sought to dismiss the leaders of these new breakaway parties as ‘local’ or ‘provincial’ politicians. This series of defections may, however, have a significant impact on the position of the previously dominant SDA.


The SDA is currently in the process of choosing its candidate to contest the election for the Bosniak position within the presidency. The current favourite is Denis Zvizdic, the Chairman of Bosnia’s Council of Ministers, with Sebija Izatbegovic, the wife of the leader of the SDA, in a strong second place. Even if Sebija Izetbegovic, who is currently General Director of the Sarajevo University clinical centre, fails to win the nomination her participation in the contest may mark her debut in a more front-line political role within the party.


Will Milorad Dodik Stay in Control in the Republika Srpska?  In the Republika Srpska Milorad Dodik and his Alliance of Independent Social Democrats (SNSD) are seeking to maintain their hold on power. Milorad Dodik began his political career in the 1990s as a pro-Western critic of the dominant Serbian nationalist leadership. Once in power Dodik sought to build up his support base using nationalist, and sometimes secessionist, rhetoric. He is now estranged from the Western political and diplomatic establishment and has been developing increasingly strong links with Vladimir Putin’s Russia. During the period in which he has held power Milorad Dodik has sought to run the Republika Srpska as a personal  fiefdom consolidating control over public, economic, and media institutions.


The main opposition to Milorad Dodik within the Republika Srpska comes from the Alliance for Change (SzP) consisting of the Serbian Democratic Party (SDS) led by Vukota Govedarica, the Party of Democratic Progress (PDP) led by Branislav Borenovic, and the National Democratic Movement (NDP) led by Dragan Cavic. The SDS, the largest party in the coalition, was the main  nationalist party during the war years of the 1990s. In recent years it has, however, adopted a more centrist position, essentially swapping places on the political spectrum with the SNSD. The centre-right PDP is one of the smaller parties in the coalition, but exercises influence out of proportion to its size. Igor Crnadak, the current Bosnian Foreign Minister, is from the PDP. Dragan Cavic’s NDP was originally a breakaway grouping from the SDS.


The 2014 general election saw Milorad Dodik coming under pressure from his political opponents. Dodik was able to win the President of the Republika Srspka but faced a strong challenge from Ognjen Tadic from the SDS. The election for the Serb representative in the Bosnian presidency, however, saw Zeljka Cvijanovic, the Prime Minister of the Republika Srspka and dodik’s nominee, defeated by Mladen Ivanic, the opposition candidate. Mladen Ivanic is an academic economist who has lectured at Glasgow University and other institutions and was, at the time of the election, the leader of the PDP. Milorad Dodik has announced that in the 2018 elections he will be standing for the Serb position on the Bosnian presidency against the incumbent Mladen Ivanic. The SNSD have yet to nominate a candidate to replace Dodik as Republika Srpska President. The opposition have stated that their candidate will be Vukota Govedarica, the leader of the SDS.


The pre-election manoeuvring has already begun. On 5 May, in remarks with the potential to raise ethnic tensions, Milorad Dodik suggested that the authorities in the Bosnian Federation may be secretly stockpiling weapons. Dodik used the visit to Banja Luka by Valentina Matviyenko, the Speaker of the Russian Federal Council, to emphasise his status as the leader of a potentially independent state. The RS government controlled by Dodik, has also been seeking to complete large-scale infrastructure projects in time for the elections, including the long delayed Doboj to Banja Luka motorway. Aleksandra Pandurevic, Vice-President of the SDS, has stated that she has evidence that the RS authorities are conducting surveillance on opposition figures including in particular, Mladen Ivanic, Dodik’s opponent in the forthcoming election for the Serb representative in  the Bosnian presidency.    


While Milorad Dodik and the SNSD will have clear institutional advantages the opposition may be able to tap into increasing levels of public discontent, In recent weeks a series of protests have taken place in Banja Luka and other towns in the Republika Srpska highlighting the case of David Dragicevic, a young man who died in unclear circumstances amidst allegations of a cover up by the authorities. The opposition have been able to focus on this issue as an example of wider institutional failure. There is also public unhappiness over the current, parlous, state of the economy which is characterised by high unemployment, low investment, over regulation, and corruption. The PDP, in particular, has sought to articulate an opposition economic alternative to the current  policies of the SNSD led government.


Parallel Struggles? The Bosnian constitutional and political system tends to produce electoral contests within rather than across ethnic lines. The two political struggles described above , taking place within the Bosniak and Serb communities, do, however, have common characteristics, and are to a degree inter-connected. In both cases an entrenched political elite pursuing an authoritarian model of governance is being opposed by potentially reformist opposition forces.  While the Bosniak (SDA) and Serb (SNSD) governing elites often portray themselves as being rivals their competitive use of nationalist rhetoric also acts to reinforce each other’s positions. The result of this developing contest between governing parties and the opposition will have significant impact on the future direction taken by Bosnia.   




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