On the 15th of November 2020, Bosnia and Herzegovina held municipal elections. These demonstrated a great deal of frustration with the current political climate, as Nationalist parties with traditionally secure majorities lost seats in some of their strongholds – the Bosniak party, Stranka Demokratske Akcije (Party of Democratic Action), for example, lost three out of four municipalities in Sarajevo. But let’s travel 101 miles south from the capital to the largest city in the Herzegovina region, Mostar – where municipal elections are not a common occurrence.
Most will be familiar with Mostar through the iconic Stari Most (old bridge) displayed in every travel guide, pamphlet, or magazine about the country – and, unsurprisingly, the cover photo for this article as well. However, as is the case with most flashy images, reality is often displaced to make room for the rule of thirds. While Mostar is truly one of the most beautiful and vibrant cities in Europe, it, like the rest of Bosnia and Herzegovina, has a complicated and painful past.
In the 1990s, the city was entangled in a series of conflicts following the collapse of Yugoslavia, the effects of which are still present in Mostar today. Most of these effects are often noticeable through the division between the two major ethnic groups in the city – Muslim Bosniaks and Catholic Croats. It is in light of such divisions that we may begin to understand the municipal elections in Mostar, or, more accurately, the lack thereof.
Bosnia and Herzegovina has one of the most complicated electoral systems in the world, and Mostar’s system for municipal elections is no exception. The system was originally set out in the Election Act 2001, and on this basis, elections were held in Mostar in 2004 and 2008.
Towards the end of 2010, the constitutional court of Bosnia and Herzegovina ruled that provisions of the Election Act 2001 regarding Mostar, were unconstitutional. This lead to a court ruling directing Parliament to amend the necessary provision, and ordering Mostar City Council to reform the city’s statutes in alignment with the amendments required of Parliament.
The reason for the Court’s judgment was based on the construction of constituencies in Mostar. The 2001 Act attempts to draw constituencies in a way which would allow for power-sharing between the different ethnic groups; in such a way as to not escalate tensions in the city. Yet, the court concluded that this would not be an accurate portrayal of the electorate and, thus, had failed to secure equal suffrage to all citizens in Mostar. Therefore the court ordered the reorganisation of Mostar’s constituencies.
As time went on and no substantial steps were taken for the reform, in 2012, the Constitutional Court ruled that the impugned provisions of the Election Act 2001 would lose their legal validity. The consequence of the Court’s decision was that the 2008 elections became the last held in Mostar over the past twelve years.
Since 2008, the reorganisation of constituencies as ordered by the Constitutional Court never came to fruition. Instead, power struggles between the Croat Hrvatska Demokratska Zajednica Bosne i Hercegovine (Croatian Democratic Union of Bosnia and Herzegovina) and the Bosniak Stranka Demokratske Akcije (Party of Democratic Action) continued. The former proposed a solution of compensational mandates, while the latter rejected such a proposal over fears of an underrepresented Bosniak minority. The consequence of the disputes between parties led to a city which has, essentially, been ruled by the undemocratic technical Mayoral mandate of Ljubo Bešlić since 2012.
As of 2012, the City Council – the city’s elected body – is no longer in place, leaving Bešlić with unchecked power. This is especially important as one of the roles of the City Council is to elect the Mayor. Furthermore, due to elections being unable to take place, in 2013, the Mayor substituted the City Council’s role in adopting the city’s budget. This was done through an exception made by the Bosnia and Herzegovina Parliament; an exception which would continue to be made every year since. During this time, little action has been taken by the Mayor to implement any strategy to improve the city, leaving the citizens most affected by this lack of implementation unable to make their voices heard through democratic means.
While the electoral void which resides over Mostar is sure to leave a sombre feeling, there remains an optimistic future. Over the years, there has been a continued effort from locals in Mostar to regain their power, and such efforts have proved to be a driving force in achieving municipal elections. In 2019, a case was heard at the European Court of Human Rights, brought forward by a resident of Mostar. The case resulted in a unanimous verdict, ruling a violation of Article 1 of Protocol No 12 to the convention – the article regards discrimination, which in the case was linked to the inability to vote and stand in the local elections. As a result, the Bosnia and Herzegovina Parliament was ordered to amend the Election Act 2001.
Such efforts and many more resulted in what can only be described as a historic moment for the city. Earlier this year the necessary amendments were made to the 2001 Act, and as a result municipal elections are set for the twentieth of December 2020. These elections will finally allow the residents of Mostar to exercise their democratic rights which they were stripped of 12 years ago.
Leehoo Pansky is a SOAS Digital Ambassador and second year LLB Law student. His interests include Environmental Law, Human Rights and clowning. He also claims to be the only person on the planet with the first name Leehoo.