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Not like other Croats? Emigration patterns and voting behaviour of Herzegovinian Croats

The complex voter dynamics of Bosnia and Herzegovina offer fertile soil for disinformation about ethnic voting patterns. Among these stereotypes is the belief that Herzegovinian Croats are a vocal nationalist minority who emigrate more from the country. Despite this, analysis of recent election data suggests that this outlook is totally false.

November 25, 2022 - Valentino Grbavac - Analysis

Aerial drone view of Ljubuski, Bosnia and Herzegovina. Photo: Ajdin Kamber / Shutterstock

Following the 2022 general elections in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), which were held on October 2nd, some analysts on Twitter started spewing the usual myths about Croat voting patterns. They claimed that 90,000 Croats who live in five Bosniak-majority cantons generally vote for “moderate” and “multiethnic parties” without backing up their claims with any data. These claims are a part of the wider narrative that argues that: 1) Herzegovinian Croats emigrate much more than Bosnian Croats, suggesting that Herzegovinian Croats are a vocal minority that dominates Croat politics in BiH; 2) Croats should have less political power as they are disappearing from BiH; and 3) Herzegovinian Croats are a homogenous group that supports the Croatian Democratic Union of Bosnia and Herzegovina (HDZ), the main Croat nationalist party in BiH, while Bosnian Croats are moderate. The reason for these outlandish claims is that the last census was done in 2013 and no one has undertaken a detailed demographic analysis, leaving space for speculation.

The 2013 census, which recorded 3.5 million residents in BiH, has been wildly inflated. Croats alone registered 113,000 citizens who do not reside in BiH while Bosniaks registered three times this number for political reasons. Due to more deaths than births, BiH has lost 90,000 residents since 2013. Roughly 296,000 citizens have emigrated to the EU alone via Schengen visas since 2013, while close to 70,000 Croats emigrated with EU passports. The COVID-19 pandemic halved emigration for two years, but as restrictions in the EU have eased, the lines in front of embassies are once again long. All in all, BiH is now home to between 2.5 and 2.6 million residents, a number supported by experts and even cited by politicians.

Croats make up roughly 13 per cent of the total population, or 340,000 residents in 2022. This is the result of a detailed and reliable census that the Catholic Church in BiH publishes every year. Over 98 per cent of all Croats in BiH are, according to the 2013 census, Catholics, while over 98 per cent of all Catholics in BiH are Croats, so the Catholic census can help us map where Croats in BiH live with almost perfect accuracy.

Demographic trends of Croats in BiH

The geographic distribution of Croats in BiH, all numbers rounded to the nearest thousand. Pink: Croat-majority cantons. Blue: Bosniak-majority cantons. Yellow: Brcko district (BD). Grey: Republika Srpska (RS). Pink and blue cantons make up the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (FBiH). Source: Valentino Grbavac.

In 1991, 761,000 Croats lived in BiH. Today, out of 340,000 Croats in BiH, 5,000 live in Republika Srpska (RS), 5,000 live in the Brcko District (BD), and 330,000 live in the Federation of BiH (FBiH). Due to ethnic cleansing, discrimination against returnees, and post-war emigration, the number of Croats in the Serb-dominated RS decreased by 97 per cent, while the number of Croats in six Bosniak-majority cantons decreased by 67 per cent. During the war, Serb forces expelled roughly 170,000 Croats, while Bosniak forces expelled roughly 150,000 Croats. Croats survived the war demographically only in Herzegovina, where they make up the overwhelming majority of the population.

In 1991, only 33 per cent of all Croats in BiH lived in the three Herzegovinian cantons (West Herzegovina – ZHK, Herzegovina-Neretva – HNK, and Livno – K10). In 2022, 63 per cent of Croats live in these three Croat-majority Herzegovinian cantons. In other words, the proportion of Herzegovinian Croats to Bosnian Croats went from 1:2 to 2:1, largely due to the war and ethnic cleansing in Bosnia. Since 2013, the proportion of Herzegovinian Croats out of all Croats in BiH rose from 56 to 63 per cent. This proportion will only increase further in the future, as in 2021 69 per cent of all newborn Croats in BiH were born in the three Herzegovinian cantons. Out of all the municipalities in BiH in 2021, only nine Croat-majority municipalities in Herzegovina listed over 100 newborn Croats. In 1991, out of the top ten municipalities in BiH with the most Croats, six were in Bosnia and only four were in Herzegovina. Today, nine are in Herzegovina, and only one is in Bosnia. To say that the geographic shift has been dramatic would be an understatement. However, this does refute the claims that Herzegovinian Croats are a minority and that there are more Bosnian Croats.

Migration trends of Croats in BiH

Contrary to popular perceptions, Bosniaks emigrate from BiH more than Croats. For example, between 2012 (the last year before Croatia entered the EU) and 2021, the number of newborn Croats (a good proxy for measuring emigration, especially among the youth) decreased by 22 per cent, while the number of newborn Bosniaks decreased by 23 per cent. At the same time, the number of newborn Serbs in BiH decreased by just five per cent.

However, the migration trends of Croats differ vastly by region. The number of newborn Croats in the FBiH decreased by only 12 per cent between 2012 and 2021 in three Herzegovinian cantons (and in the West Herzegovina canton, the number increased), while it decreased a staggering 43 per cent in seven Bosnian cantons. In 2012, in the FBiH where 97 per cent of all Croats live, 63 per cent of all Croat were born in Herzegovina and 37 per cent in Bosnia, while in 2021 73 per cent of Croats were born in Herzegovina and just 27 per cent in Bosnia. As the birth data suggests, Croats emigrate much more from Bosnia where they are a minority, than from Herzegovina where they are a majority.

Voting patterns of Croats in BiH

A common myth that has been propagated in recent years is that Croats in Herzegovina vote overwhelmingly for HDZ, whereas Croats in Bosnia are more “progressive and moderate”. Leaving aside the wealth of research that shows that no party in BiH is truly multiethnic and that all major political parties garner at least 90 per cent of their support from just one of the three constituent nations, the analysis of the 2022 general elections results does show a significant difference in regional voting patterns amongst Croats. Overall, it is the Bosnian Croats that support HDZ much more than Herzegovinian Croats.

In the elections for ten cantonal assemblies, HDZ’s list won 115,000 votes, while other Croat-majority parties (such as HDZ 1990, HRS, HNP, etc.) won 55,000 votes. Some 4,000 Croats – mostly in Sarajevo, Tuzla, and Zenica – voted for Bosniak-majority (nominally multiethnic) parties. In other words, HDZ won 66 per cent of all Croat votes for cantonal assemblies.

Looking at the regional dynamics, HDZ won 63,000 out of 109,000 Croat votes in the three Herzegovinian cantons, or 58 per cent of votes. At the same time, HDZ won 51,000 votes out of 64,000 votes cast by Croats in seven Bosnian cantons, or 80 per cent of votes. In other words, supposedly “moderate” Croats in Bosnia proper support HDZ 22 percentage points higher on average than “nationalist” Croats in Herzegovina.

Although roughly 63 per cent of Croat voters in the FBiH live in Herzegovina (Herzegovinian Croats are 65 per cent of FBiH’s Croat population but are on average much younger than Bosnian Croats), whereas 37 per cent of them live in Bosnia, HDZ obtained 45 per cent of its votes in Bosnia and only 55 per cent in Herzegovina. In fact, in Livno canton (K10), HDZ received by far the lowest proportion of the Croat vote, only 26 per cent, making it the most politically pluralistic canton for Croats in BiH.

The total number of Croats, Croat votes for Croat parties, and Croat votes for Bosniak parties in 2022 in the two entities (RS and FBiH), Brcko District, and ten cantons that make up the FBiH. All numbers are rounded to the nearest thousand for the number of Croats and nearest 500 for the number of votes. Croat support for Bosniak-majority parties was calculated using a model that assumes roughly equal Croat turnout throughout BiH. If, for whatever reason, Croat turnout in Bosniak-majority cantons is significantly higher than the average turnout, the number of Croat votes for Bosniak-majority parties could rise to 6,000, which is still only roughly three per cent of the total Croat vote in BiH.

Election results, birth data from BiH’s statistical agencies, migration statistics from EUROSTAT, and the 2022 Catholic census paint a very different picture of Croats in BiH than stereotypes and biased analyses often portray on social media. It is actually Bosniaks, rather than Croats, who emigrate from BiH the most, despite virtually all Croats having EU passports that make emigration much easier. When it comes to the regional dynamics, Croats in Herzegovina make up two-thirds of the Croat population, a drastic increase since 1991 when they made up just one-third of the population. Croats in Herzegovina, where they are a majority, are much more politically pluralistic, support HDZ less, and emigrate much less from BiH than Bosnian Croats. These trends are likely to continue, reshaping our understanding of the demographic and political dynamics of Croats in BiH.

Valentino Grbavac is a PhD candidate in Politics at the University of Edinburgh, focusing on power-sharing, federalism, and institutional design in deeply divided societies. He earned an MA in Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies at the School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University.

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