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Intra-ethnic outbidding: an impediment to electoral reform in Bosnia and Herzegovina

Before entering into inter-ethnic negotiations, political representatives in Bosnia and Herzegovina must reach a consensus among their own ethnic groups.

August 11, 2021 - Ivan Pepic - Articles and Commentary

Sarajevan pigeons at Baščaršija Photo: Milan Suvajac wikimedia.org

Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) is in the midst of negotiations focused on electoral reform. Both EU and US representatives believe that the country needs “limited constitutional changes” in order to implement the ‘Sejdić-Finci’ judgments made by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).

Constitutional reforms are rare in societies that are deeply divided along ethnic lines. Delicate power-sharing arrangements agreed after a conflict are naturally difficult to change. This is especially true if potential reforms affect the fundamental interests of the ethnic groups in question.

One of the explanations for such rigidity is ‘intra-ethnic outbidding’. This occurs when each party within an ethnic group attempts to convince voters that it has greater concern for group interests than its intra-ethnic rivals.

The Good Friday Agreement (1998) was concluded after a quarter of a century of violent clashes between Irish Republicans (predominantly Catholics) and Unionists (traditionally Protestants) in Northern Ireland. The Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) signed the agreement on behalf of Unionists. Five years later, however, the party lost the assembly election after a century of domination within its respective community. The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) subsequently seized control after an anti-agreement campaign that involved intensifying intra-Unionist outbidding discourse, exploiting Unionist fears, and accusing the UUP of betrayal. 

Intra-ethnic outbidding exists in BiH as well but remains largely unexplored. Notable exceptions include investigations by Aleksandra Zdeb and Nina Caspersen. Much like Northern Ireland after 1998, intra-ethnic rivalry in BiH has resulted in extremist discourse. As a result, inter-ethnic cooperation and reforms remain difficult to achieve.   

Intra-ethnic outbidding from the April Package to the Mostar Agreement

Thus far, there have been at least five attempts at electoral and/or constitutional reform in the country. These moves were all supported by the EU and the US. The April Package (2006) was negotiated in Washington D.C. and was later followed by the Prud Process (2008), the Butmir Process (2009), negotiations in Brussels (2013) and the Mostar Agreement (2020).

During three of these five negotiations (April Package, Butmir and Brussels), international mediators from the start supported the inclusion of both the country’s opposition groups and three leading ethnic parties (SDA, HDZ, SNSD). These three parties represent the state’s main ethnicities (Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs respectively).

The April Package attempted to redefine the responsibilities of both the state government and the country’s two autonomous ‘entities’ (The Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Republika Srpska). Despite this, the reforms were rejected by Haris Silajdžić’s party in parliament. Silajdžić offered a ‘maximalist’ argument for this decision and stated that he was in favour of centralisation by abolishing the veto powers of the two entities. However, such a prospect was not on the negotiating table as it would have been seen as unacceptable by the leaders of Republika Srpska. Silajdžić has repeatedly said that the April Package was a “shame” and that “it had to be blocked in the name of all those who gave their lives for Bosnia”. Silajdžić presented himself as the most staunch defender of Bosniak interests. Silajdžić successfully exploited Bosniak fears by using nationalistic arguments, which allowed him to beat the SDA and other Bosniak parties and win the 2006 general elections.

The Butmir Process was intended to strengthen state control over the entities. Despite this, both Milorad Dodik’s SNSD and the Serb opposition (Mladen Ivanić’s Party of Democratic Progress (PDP)) were opposed to the abolition of the entities’ veto powers. The PDP defined the process as “absolutely unacceptable for PDP and RS” and harmful to the interests of Republika Srpska. At the same time, the right-wing Serb Democratic Party outright refused to attend the meetings at the NATO headquarters in Butmir. The party exploited Serb nationalist and anti-NATO sentiment and argued that “Republika Srpska’s citizens do not support joining NATO”. Intra-Bosniak rivalry brought about a similar result. While the SDA’s leader Sulejman Tihić regarded the Butmir Process as “too important to fail”, Social Democratic Party (SDP) leader Zlatko Lagumdžija boycotted the negotiations and stated that he “will not allow the collapse of the state”. He subsequently promoted the maximalist Bosniak demand that the entities’ powers be weakened.

Intra-Bosniak outbidding reappeared in Brussels a few years later. While Lagumdžija accused the HDZ and SDA of “splitting the Federation”, the SDA accused the SDP of signing an agreement with the HDZ. According to the SDA, such an “agreement strengthens the ethnic concept and introduces new discrimination to the detriment of the Bosniak people”.

On the other hand, the Croatian side is represented by several political parties united by consensus as part of the Croatian National Assembly (HNS). Compared to the Bosniak and Serb sides, intra-Croat competition has not affected inter-ethnic negotiations. Prior to talks with the Bosniaks and Serbs, Croat politicians reach agreement within the HNS and then begin the process of inter-ethnic negotiation. This is usually led by the HDZ. This guarantees stability at the inter-ethnic level but might also reflect effective “ethnic capture” by the HDZ. Due to a lack of electoral reform, the election of Croat representatives in collective institutions remains largely dependent on the behaviour and turnout of Bosniak voters. Overall, the Croat community continues to rely on the HDZ, which is not against exploiting its control over resources and institutions for political gain. This has subsequently led to the party gaining a monopoly on power within the community.

Two of the five negotiations (Prud and Mostar) were more successful. In Prud, only the three main ethnic parties (SDA, HDZ, SNSD) participated in the talks. Aleksandra Zdeb noted that the atmosphere between the three leaders was positive. More importantly, the groups were able to agree on several steps forward. Prud laid the foundations for the state’s budget, the future of the Brčko district and the population census (held in 2013 after 22 years). Despite this, other key decisions were not made and this was mainly due to High Representative Valentin Inzko’s decision to expand the number of participants following pressure from the opposition. This opposition pressure was once again the result of intra-ethnic outbidding. Silajdžić exploited Bosniak fears by arguing that the Prud Agreement would have realised “Slobodan Milošević’s project” to ensure “the division of Bosnia in three parts”. Simultaneously, Lagumdžija accused the SDA of “damaging the vital interests of the state”. The then SDA Vice-President Bakir Izetbegović even accused SDA President Tihić of granting “concessions” to the Croats and Serbs in Prud.

The SDA and HDZ signed a two-part agreement in Mostar in 2020. One part concerned the Mostar elections, which were held after both parties negotiated new electoral rules. The opposition was called upon only to give support to the reforms in parliament.

The second part concerns more comprehensive electoral reform, including the implementation of ECHR and constitutional court decisions. Under pressure, EU and US mediators granted a greater voice to opposition parties and this has seemingly led to a scenario similar to that faced in Prud. The SDA was quickly accused of “treason” by other parties that are supported predominantly by Bosniak voters (DF, NS, SBB, SDP). Some within these groups have even argued that the Mostar Agreement could result in a “Gaza for Bosniaks” or “Muslim mini-state”. As a result, the SDA decided to renounce the Mostar Agreement only a year after it was approved.

 Intra-ethnic consensus should come before inter-ethnic negotiations

The post-war history of negotiation in BiH teaches us at least two lessons. Firstly, the various ethnic groups should reach internal agreement before entering into inter-ethnic negotiations. Compared to Bosniak politicians, Croat representatives are in a more comfortable situation due to the unifying role of the HNS. Bosniak leaders continue to be influenced by issues related to intra-ethnic outbidding, with politicians accusing each other of “treason” and of neglecting the interests of Bosniaks and BiH.

Secondly, negotiations in deeply divided societies are only successful when they involve a limited number of actors. Examples of this include Dayton, Good Friday, Taif and even the Prud and Mostar accords. Breakthroughs also tend to occur when intra-ethnic outbidding does not endanger the delicate agreements between different groups. Intra-ethnic outbidding is often present in periods following agreements, such as the DUP and UUP’s competition in Northern Ireland. Despite this, the phenomenon only persists as long as it does not damage the negotiated decisions that brought about such competition in the first place. This is exemplified by the aftermath of the Mostar Agreement.

Of course, this does not preclude a role for the country’s opposition. On the contrary, the ethnic outbidding tactic could continue to exist well into the future. However, political history shows us that if the goal is to reach agreements and stability in deeply divided societies, then this competition should not have an influence on inter-ethnic negotiations.

Ivan Pepic is a PhD student in political science at the University of Geneva. In his work he focuses on electoral systems and power-sharing democracies in deeply divided societies.

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