By AIDA CERKEZ-ROBINSONBosnians vote in election with international impact
SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina (April 8, 2000) - Bosnian voters choose 3,300 local officials Saturday in an election whose outcome may determine whether the United States and Europe remain willing to continue efforts to rebuild the ethnically divided nation.
International officials who administer the country under the 1995 Dayton Peace Accords have indicated that support for Bosnia may evaporate if Muslim, Serb and Croat-based parties that led the country into war in 1992 retain their hold on power.
More than 2.5 million of Bosnia's 4.3 million people are registered to vote in the second elections for mayors and local councils to be held since the Dayton agreement ended 3-1/2 years of ethnic war.
Since then, however, Bosnians have generally supported Muslim, Serb and Croat parties opposed to a multiethnic society.
This time, international backers who have provided peacekeepers and $5.1 billion for Bosnian peace since Dayton hope that voters will choose candidates willing to implement the treaty's provisions, including the right of all refugees to return to their prewar homes regardless of their ethnicity.
"If we can show some achievement this year, we have the decent chance to convince the American people and leaders to continue the assistance," U.S. Ambassador Thomas Miller said.
Some seemed anxious to prevent change. In one incident Saturday, a man jumped out of a car at a polling station in northeastern Bosnia, swinging a stick at two U.N. police officers, said Douglas Coffman, the spokesman for the U.N. International police. Police evaded the attack and local officers arrested the man.
The attack occurred in Bijeljina, the headquarters of the Serb Radical Party. International officials removed the party from elections, saying the group was obstructing the Dayton peace agreement by using inflammatory language in public speeches.
In turn, the Radicals called for a boycott and their newspaper "Greater Serbia" urged supporters "to smash the boxes, destroy the ballots."
In Mostar, divided since the war into a Muslim eastern part and Croatian western section, hundreds of people lined up to vote.
"I expect changes from these elections - a better tomorrow for all people, especially for the young," said Meho Corovic, 37, as he voted in the Muslim part of the city. "I expect more jobs, more reconstruction."
Further complicating the election process are the more than 1 million refugees and displaced people. About 200,000 refugees living abroad will vote by mail, while the remainder displaced within Bosnia will cast absentee ballots.
Voters casting such ballots from Sarajevo, most of them Muslims displaced from villages now in the Serb-run half of the country, were lined up outside polling stations an hour before they opened.
Because of the complicated process of registration, voting and counting the ballots, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe - charged with organizing, monitoring and implementing the elections - has not given a specific time for the announcement final results.
Approximately $10 million has been spent on the whole project. More than 5,500 domestic and nearly 300 international observers will join 750 international supervisors in monitoring the process to ensure fairness.
The OSCE has already barred one party and several dozen candidates from the elections for various kinds of fraud.
Prospects for change are strongest in several Muslim-dominated cities, where the opposition Social Democrats are mounting a strong challenge to the Party for Democratic Action of Muslim President Alija Izetbegovic.
Serb voters, however, may be even more inclined to support hard-line candidates to spite the international community, following the arrest of a top Bosnian Serb politician on war crimes charges this week.