Ten years of ethnic parties in B&H

Tijana Tadic

MON, 14 AUG 2000

Banja Luka, August 7, 2000 - Exactly ten years ago the first election campaign in the history of Bosnia and Herzegovina started. The newly created ethnic parties hoisted their flags, joined an impossible coalition and set out in the angry battle for votes.

Since then and to this day, every year in B&H has been either a pre-election, an election, or a war year.

Nowadays, at the end of the decade during which they have marked the destiny of "their" peoples, Party of Democratic Action (SDA), Croat Democratic Community (HDZ) and Serb Democratic Party (SDS) are preparing for elections again.

Assumptions of naive, rational and badly informed about the Balkans Western mentors that these three parties will lose voters as soon as the war trumpets are silenced and that they will die out by themselves, have of course proved to be wrong. Neither is Bosnia & Herzegovina a model for academic analysis, nor are the Serbs, the Croats and the Bosniacs citizens who elect according to reason, nor has the party scene in B&H, or more precisely in its entities, given birth to a true alternative to 1990 "winners". That is why the past local elections loudly announced by members of the international community as the end of ethnic parties, ended up as they did. SDS has won absolute majority in Republika Srpska, and success of Lagumdzija's Social Democratic Party in the federation can be called a victory only by optimists. Because, although for some time it has obviously been dilapidating from within, SDA has managed to win a significant percentage of the votes of the Bosniacs, and when the Croats are concerned, a great majority of them have voted either for HDZ or they have not voted at all.

Not long after the end of local elections, party anniversaries followed. SDA, HDZ and finally SDS, celebrated a "decade of successful operation". How successful that operation of theirs has actually been is best illustrated by the quality of living of an enormous majority of the Bosniacs, the Croats and the Serbs whose last years of the twentieth century were marked, thanks to the doing of their ethnic leaders, by misery, suffering, life in exile, and thickly populated cemeteries.

However, more than symbolic is the moment in which the three ethnic parties in B&H have observed their tenth anniversaries: before them, its first decade was observed by Croatian HDZ, and the period of jubilees ended by the tenth anniversary of the Socialist party of Serbia. The circle has thus been closed.

Is the birth of ethnic parties in Bosnia & Herzegovina the result of developments in the two neighbouring states, parent countries of the two constitutive peoples in B&H? Had the legal provision on the ban of party organising on ethnic grounds remained in force, would the war in B&H have been avoided? And finally, had the elections in 1990 in B&H taken place before the elections in Croatia, would their result have been different? These and numerous similar questions, nowadays like ten years ago, attract attention of the local political public.

Ethnic parties in B&H are a result of a crucial moment filled with uncertainty, fear for existence, collapse of a whole system of values, the approaching economic crisis and dramatic dissolution of Yugoslavia which majority of the Bosnians experienced as their homeland. The communists were going into the past and nobody was offering a vision of the future. The citizens who were for decades expected just to approve of actions of the regime by acclamation could not transform into voters overnight. Even if the political offer had been richer and more sensible, even if someone had offered a true alternative, it is questionable whether the citizens would have recognised it. That is how what politicologists had forecast actually happened: one fiction was replaced by another. The dilapidating ideology was replaced by stirred up previously suppressed nationalism. Appealing to the subconsciousness of the voters, those who had more convincing banners and louder slogans prevailed. Former emigrants, political prisoners and poets of nationalistic poems came to power.

Ethnic parties have offered to their peoples yet another important quality: more or less charismatic leaders. Ten years after the death of Josip Broz, the myth about comrade Tito could no longer rule the souls of the people who, removed from religion but caught unprepared by reality, yearned for a messiah.

Nowadays, ten years after that, the question is what has changed in B&H, its surroundings and (sub)consciousness of the majority of its citizens. In a recent interview, James Lion, director of the International Crisis Group for B&H, assessed that not a single political party in B&H has a clearly defined platform. "The platform of SDA are the mothers of Srebrenica, they have no other platform. The platform of SDS has remained the Cyrillic script, three fingers and undefined Serb ethnic interest. The platform of HDZ is greater Croatia. The platform of Lagumdzija and SDP is 'we are not SDA'", said, among other, James Lion. Lion has very keenly observed that not even the parties in B&H without an ethnic prefix have a clear ideology or platform objectives. Therefore, nowadays, like ten years ago, nobody is offering a clear vision of the future.

After ten years of rule of ethnic parties, the citizens of B&H still live in uncertainty. Their state survives on the agreement signed by ethnic leaders under pressure. The economy is facing total collapse, and the institutions are still unstable and sinking into corruption. The question is whether majority of inhabitants of B&H really feel this country as their homeland, or just as a place where they are, at least temporarily, forced to live.

Nevertheless, after a decade of their rule of the destiny of the three constitutive peoples in B&H, ethnic parties have slowly started to die out. In all three ethnic parties a crisis of leadership is more or less evident. Alija Izetbegovic has announced withdrawal from the political scene, and whoever may be the new president of SDA, will not be a successor of Alija, but simply just a president of one of the parties . HDZ of B&H has never had its own leader. The leader of this party has always lived in Zagreb. In SDS, the three consisting of Kalinic, Sarovic, Cavic is at the moment successfully playing the role of the collective leader with Dragan Cavic having the greatest chances to remain the first among members of SDS, but under condition that the eastern faction finally accepts him as its leader.

It would be too simplified to claim that SDS, HDZ and SDA as ethnic movements kave completed the task of ethnic homogenisation and that now they can peacefully depart into history or legend. Such a politicological hypothesis may be applied only to SDA which has by international and actual recognition of sovereignty of B&H accomplished the goal for which it had been founded. The case of the Serbs and the Croats is essentially different and this could be an explanation of their comparatively greater success in the elections.

Therefore, November 2000 will not be the end of ethnic parties, just as April this year has not been that, but the forthcoming elections could mark the beginning of their end. The one who realizes that and offers the voters an interesting alternative may win not only a significant number of votes but may also create an investment for the future.

Of course, one of the open questions is whether ethnic parties may transform and adapt to the new time and new circumstances and thus survive political evolution in B&H. The example of of the recent conflict in HDZ between the "European" Jadranko Prlic and supporters of the hard core of HDZ B&H is an argument in favour of those who claim that this is impossible. On the contrary, survival and constantly good election results of SDS, as well as improving relations of leaders of this party with the representatives of the international community lead to the conclusion that such a shift might after all be possible.

Original article