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Let Bosnians Vote a Rainbow Ticket

Having to appeal to voters outside their own group would force politicians to embrace moderation.

October 16, 1997|CHRIS BENNETT and ANNA HUSARSKA | Chris Bennett and Anna Husarska are political analysts at the International Crisis Group, a nongovernment organization monitoring the implementation of Dayton peace accords in Bosnia

SARAJEVO — The chorus of voices calling for the division of Bosnia along ethnic lines is growing. Believers of "ancient hatreds" and converts to "let's scrap the Dayton peace accords" no doubt will use the results of the municipal elections in Bosnia to reinforce their claim. See, nationalists of all colors took the overwhelming majority of the seats. Look, only a tiny minority opted for the nonnationalist alternative.

The news that in municipal elections, Muslims ethnically cleansed from Srebrenica won more seats than the Serbs from the cleansers' club who now live there spoils this simplistic response, doesn't it?

Perhaps the division along ethnic lines clear in these elections is only natural so soon after the war. But apart from the normal healing process, which requires time, two major factors prevent more moderate elements from coming to power in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The first is the ongoing reign of terror of the ethnic cleansers. Although many have been indicted by the international war crimes tribunal in The Hague, the most notorious remain at liberty and continue to run affairs via fear and intimidation. In this climate, their kin are obliged to back them. Meanwhile, their former victims vote for their own nationalists in an effort to bolster their own security. The solution here is for NATO to apprehend indicted war criminals living in Bosnia and dispatch them to The Hague. This is not enough but it is an indispensable first step.

The second obstacle preventing moderates from coming to power in Bosnia is embedded within the electoral system. In their insecurity, voters seek the most robust protection from the other ethnic groups and thus look to nationalist champions. Those who promise the most aggressive defense of the national rights of their own tribe are most appealing. This is a sure-fire recipe for the election and reelection of extremists. Here the solution is novel. What if, built into the electoral system, there was a mechanism that would force candidates to woo all Bosnian voters, not just their ethnic kin? One way to achieve this is to set the division of seats in advance by ethnicity and also enable all Bosnians to vote for all ethnic groups. Next to the three main ethnic groups currently recognized in Bosnia and Herzegovina--Serbs, Croats and Muslims--a fourth group, Others, would have to be introduced. This would offer a chance of running for an elective office to those who by faith (like Jews or self-proclaimed Yugoslavs) or by fate (like children of mixed marriages) do not belong to the three main communities. Everyone in Bosnia would then elect his or her preferred candidate or party in each ethnic group.

A system that gives voters a say in the selection of candidates from ethnic groups other than their own rewards moderation. A system that creates separate slots for different ethnic groups reduces the competition between groups and should, in time, induce collaboration. Candidates have nothing to gain by aggressively underlining their differences and may even, in time, begin to look for alliances.

The next national elections here are scheduled for September 1998. If the current electoral system remains unchanged, prospects for reconciliation and long-term stability are virtually nonexistent. Elections will, as at present, simply amount to an ethnic census or tribal head count, strengthening the extremist grip on society. If the vote is to have any meaning and help put Bosnia back on a track that at least offers some chance of reconciliation, the outside world must insist on fundamental electoral changes.

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