Divided Bosnians vote with little hope of change

Reuters News
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Posted: Oct 12, 2014 4:41 AM

By Daria Sito-Sucic and Maja Zuvela

SARAJEVO (Reuters) - Bosnians voted for national, regional and local representatives on Sunday in elections dominated by still-unresolved issues of identity and statehood after almost 20 years of peace, and with scant prospect of any genuine change.

Many Bosnians had hoped civil unrest in February might generate enough momentum to oust the political elite, widely seen as corrupt and incapable of reforming a complex system of ethnic power-sharing that ended a 1992-95 war.

However, devastating floods in May helped drown out such hopes and, with few new faces on the ballot papers, political analysts predict more of the usual policy paralysis and neglect of the bread-and-butter issues that matter to ordinary Bosnians.

"I didn't vote for anyone; they're all the same. I just came to cast an empty ballot so they can't misuse it," said Sarajevo pensioner Saima Alajbegovic.

Anger over corruption and unemployment was at the heart of the unprecedented popular unrest in February, when protests over factory closures turned violent and spread to several cities.

But during the election campaign calls for greater focus on jobs, red tape and good governance have mostly gone unheeded.

Instead, stark differences between rival ethnic groups over Bosnia's future were again on prominent display. Bosnia's Orthodox Christian Serb leaders want to secede, the Catholic Croats want a separate entity within Bosnia and the Muslim Bosniaks still cling to the vision of a strong unified state.

Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik, emboldened by a pro-Russian separatist revolt in eastern Ukraine, has grown louder in his calls for secession of the autonomous Serb Republic from Bosnia.

"I expect these elections to confirm the stability of Republika Srpska (Serb Republic)," he said after voting.

Bakir Izetbegovic, bidding for a new term as the Bosniak member of Bosnia's tripartite presidency - Serbs and Croats also each have a representative - vowed for the end of divisions.

"It's high time to end the standstill and I think that politicians have matured enough to come out of this vicious cycle," he said on Sunday.

The state election commission put preliminary turnout figures by 11 a.m. (0900 GM) at 14.22 percent, up from 13.48 percent by the same time in the 2010 vote when the total turnout was 56.6 percent.

COMPLEX ARRANGEMENTS

Under its U.S.-brokered postwar settlement, Bosnia is split into two autonomous regions joined by a weak central government, power split along ethnic lines in a highly decentralized and costly system that frequently paralyses decision-making.

Government jobs are reserved for the three main ethnic groups. Limited Western efforts to encourage reform have run into the sand.

Close to 3.3 million voters choose between candidates for 518 posts across six layers of government, including the three-person presidency, the national parliament, the two regional parliaments, 10 cantonal assemblies and another in the 'neutral' district of Brcko.

With no clear frontrunners, the vote looks like being split between many players, raising the prospect of long delays in forming governments at the various levels.

That will worsen Bosnia's economic outlook, already hit by the May floods which inflicted damage totaling about 2 billion euros.

"I wish there'd be some radical change ... across the country, but I doubt it, because people here still vote according to national patterns," said economist Miroslav Dardarevic, voting in the Serb Republic main city of Banja Luka.

The biggest election upset may come in the Serb region, where a coalition of opposition parties hopes to end Dodik's eight years in power.

"If the opposition wins in Republika Srpska, changes would come in at least the form of political vocabulary," said political analyst Djordje Vukovic. "I see it only as a change of rhetoric because the national themes are still untouchable."

Most polling stations will close at 7 p.m. and preliminary results are expected during the night, the commission said. Some will close late after opening late due to procedural delays.

(Additional reporting by Gordana Katana; Editing by Matt Robinson and Jon Boyle)