“As long as they are not shooting…”: Political Culture and Participation in Bosnia-Herzegovina

2014 political protests in Tuzla, Bosnia and Herzegovina (photo: Transconflict)

The recent 20-year anniversary of the Dayton Peace Agreement reified the prospects for change in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Central to these prospects are the ways in which Bosnian citizens think and act politically.

The recent 20-year anniversary of the Dayton Peace Agreement reified the prospects for change in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Central to these prospects are the ways in which Bosnian citizens think and act politically.

In the early spring of 2014, widespread protests broke out in Bosnia-Herzegovina (BiH). Thousands of Bosnians of all ages, ethnicities and backgrounds – workers, students, pensioners – took to the streets of Bosnia’s largest cities in a collective sign of frustration, fed up with high unemployment, low pensions, unscrupulous privatization, political stagnation and corruption. In what proved to be the most widespread and persistent example of political activism in Bosnia since the end of the war, the conflict lines were drawn not along ethnic but socioeconomic lines.

The protests eventually developed into more formalized citizens’ assemblies, or plenums. Here, ordinary citizens presented both their concerns and concrete demands, which were debated and subsequently brought to local, cantonal and Federation (one of Bosnia’s two sub-state entities) governments. Echoing this discontent, a June 2014 poll revealed that more than 90% of citizens believed the country was moving in the wrong direction and more than 75% were dissatisfied with the performance of entity governments.[1]

Nonetheless, the enormous popular dissatisfaction and political energy found in the protests and plenums did not manifest itself at the ballots only half a year later. The October 2014 general elections in Bosnia saw a voter turnout of just above 54% – a decrease of two percentage points from 2010 and continuing the general post-war trend of decreasing election participation.[2] At the same time, the old parties with traditionally ethno-nationalist agendas – SDA (Bosniaks), SDS (Serbs) and HDZ BiH (Croats) – all increased their vote share, coined by one observer as the “return of the Big Three.”[3]

However surprising this electoral result may seem against such a background, it is symptomatic of the attitude toward the role of politics – particularly elections – in Bosnian society. In trying to better understand the factors at play here and explain their outcomes, this article examines political participation and, more broadly, the political culture in Bosnia and attempts to contribute to a basis on which to assess the prospects of internally driven change.

To Vote or Not to Vote

Elections are a central arena for political participation and a key function of any representative democracy. Examining the reasons why people do or do not vote in Bosnia gives insight into their perceptions related to political participation and the role of elections as an instrument for change.

First, the belief that casting one’s vote will simply make no difference in outcome is central to voting abstention. According to a study by Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES) on the characteristics of abstainers and voters in the 2012 Local Elections in Bosnia, the most popular reason for not voting is that “it will not help me.”[4] The sentiment that “nothing will change anyway” may be the result of a system that allows for extensive veto rights to defend the “vital national interests” of the three constituent peoples (Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats). This provision has prompted continuous political blockades[5]– especially when it comes to the issue of constitutional reform, which has long been called for by locals and internationals alike and is central to Bosnia’s EU accession prospects.

Second, there is a general lack of trust among Bosnians in the country’s political institutions. Only one out of seven citizens (14.3%) trusts political parties, according to a July 2014 survey conducted by Analitika.[6] At the same time, governmental and parliamentary bodies enjoy significantly less trust (between 22.1% and 25.7%) than do religious institutions, the media, the NGO sector and the police and armed forces (+50%). The same pattern is also found among non-voters, who, in general, have even less trust in institutions than do voters.[4]

Third, many Bosnians do not find their views represented in mainstream political discourse. “The ideological debate in this country is non-existent…. [Political parties in Bosnia] just don’t exist as ideological parties,” says political scientist at the Sarajevo School of Science and Technology, Adnan Huskić. Instead, he says that parties, to a large extent, define themselves in terms of ethnicity, regardless of what ideological differences they may have. This may explain the FES study’s finding that “voters are greater nationalists than non-voters,” while values such as “cosmopolitanism and liberalism are predominantly present in the respondents who never vote.”[4] The value systems of non-voters are not widely represented at the political level. While this leads some to “vote for the lesser evil,”[7] it also suggests why the second-most given reason for not voting is that “there is no one to vote for.”[4]

The motivations for non-voters are clear, but what about those who actually do vote? What are their incentives? Why do they participate in elections and why do they vote for particular candidates?

“We have a huge public administration,” says Jasmina Čolić, Acting Coordinator at Koalicija 143 (K-143), a civic coalition advocating for constitutional reform.

“There are many, many employees, and to get a position in any of the public enterprises… you need to have a political party affiliation. So, if you take into account the number of people who are employed by public enterprises, those represent the electorate. They are not going to bite the hand that feeds them, right? Nor will they undermine the branch they are sitting on,” states Colić.

In a country with one of the world’s highest unemployment rates (25.8%)[8] as well as the world’s highest youth unemployment rate (67.6%)[9] (statistics do not include Bosnia’s substantial informal-sector employment[10]), close ties between public employees and political parties incentivize employees to use their vote to maintain the status quo as a means of security for themselves and their families. This incentive may trump ideological or other preferences.

Such a dynamic favors the old, large and incumbent parties and may well account for the motivations of a substantive portion of Bosnian voters. According to Huskić, “What [the parties in power] do through public procurement is broaden their clientele base. For private companies, their biggest employer is the state in terms of giving them jobs and projects to do”.

Huskić notes that of those who do vote during elections, “at least 90% are those clientele that strictly adhere to their ties with certain political parties. This is why we have such repetitive electoral patterns.”

An examination of voters and non-voters may thus suggest why elections are not widely perceived or used as a vehicle for political and social change in Bosnia, hence the low voter turnout and repetitive electoral patterns. Looking at extra-electoral forms of political participation does not alter this picture significantly. Civil society, a favored area of focus for Bosnia’s international community provides an alternative avenue for citizens to influence their politicians, however, this sector has neither a strong popular foundation nor sufficient capacity or institutional support to challenge – or even supplement – state structures.[11] Instead, “one of the main characteristics of BiH civil society is its overall weakness and inability to hold the state accountable,” which is mainly due to “the constant fragmentation along ethno-religious lines.”[12]

Tracing Political Culture

The nature and extent of political participation in any one country or region is, to some extent, reflective of the specific political culture of that area and is a product of specific historical circumstances. In Bosnia’s case, two often cited historical factors stand out as particularly influential in shaping today’s political culture.

The first is Bosnia’s legacy of socialist rule from the end of World War II until its independence in 1992. Its reliance on, and subjugation to, the state and a single communist party for the provision of all services largely discouraged civil initiatives, the development of a cohesive civil society culture, and a sense of individual agency.[11,13,14]

The perception of oneself as a political actor with the ability to influence change was not nurtured in the minds of Bosnians during this period. This dynamic continues to influence people’s thinking today through what Jelena Brkić Šmigoc, an expert on political will in Bosnia, coins “cognitive schemas.”

“I would dare to say that we [Bosnians] ‘live’ under a cognitive schema of belief in the impossibility to change the current state of affairs, the schema of so-called learned helplessness.”[14]

As such, there is a very low level of political efficacy among Bosnians, understood as “the feeling that political and social change is possible, and that the individual citizen can play a part in bringing about this change.”[15]

Another decisive factor shaping today’s political culture in Bosnia was the war of 1992-1995. While the collectivism of communist ideology was on retreat, it was replaced not by a new civic identity but by a myriad of ethno-national identities. In what Mary Kaldor has described as “a war against civil society,” people’s ethnic identities were sharpened and the first free multiparty elections saw the vast majority of votes going to the three ethnically based parties[12] – ‘the Big Three’.

As ethnicity continues to be the most important indicator of identity for over 70% of the population,[16] and broad, civic-based action is heavily confined by ethnicity and is consequently fragmented. Bosnia is “a tremendously atomized society,” says Huskić. “Our understanding of our role in society and what we can do as a society or community is very limited.”

Yet another consequence of the war is reflected in the saying “samo nek ne puca…”, “as long as they are not shooting…”. After experiencing and surviving the worst atrocities a society could face, anything is better in comparison. This has lowered the threshold for what is not considered as acceptable. As one commentator notes, “the war years left such deep traumas that anger about the way politicians have prospered while standards of living have declined has been suppressed out of fear of a return to conflict.”[16]

This does not discourage political participation per se (people still go to vote for parties and politicians they find corrupt and do not trust) but it discourages political participation to bring about change, as people are willing to settle for what they already have. A common thread among interviewees is that the nationalistic parties deliberately feed this fear of what the future might bring because they benefit from the status quo, thus actively supporting a political culture unsupportive of change.

Where, then, does this leave young Bosnians born after communism and the last war? In terms of electoral participation, the 2014 elections saw a 51.6% voter turnout for 18- to 30-year-olds, which was slightly below the overall turnout average.[18] Three out of four persons aged 16 to 30 claim not to be interested in politics. Regarding other forms of participation, such as membership of political parties or youth organizations, direct contact with politicians, or participation in public debates or online political discussions, youth involvement is generally low.[17] Out of the variety of factors that contribute to low levels of political participation among youth, a key element is likely the transmission of existing cognitive schemas through the sectors of society responsible for political socialization such as the family and school systems. Political culture is a relatively stable structure, embedded in the formal and informal structures of society, which makes it resistant to change and, allows it to pass from one generation to another.

Despite all this, thousands of Bosnians took concrete political action during the protests and plenums in Spring 2014. These political manifestations were – in the Bosnian context – unique in their longevity, spread and non-ethnic character. Against the background of a poor record of political participation, especially in the forms of demonstrations and citizen’s assemblies, they stood out as extraordinary and unprecedented.

Several commentators referred to them as a “Bosnian Spring”. According to Ines Tanović, a member of the Sarajevo plenum and coordinator for inter-plenum cooperation, they were “the most positive thing in this country in the 20 years since the war ended.” The events led to some tangible results, including the resignation of a handful of cantonal government officials and the agreement of some others to cut certain economic privileges for politicians.

Despite these wins, the main achievement of the protests and plenums, in Tanović’s eyes, derives from their uniqueness as popular political actions and the change in citizens’ awareness of their roles as political actors.

While political culture typically fosters a certain type of political participation, the protests and plenums, in many respects, reversed the direction of influence from participation to culture. “Before, you couldn’t imagine that people would take to the streets because a gas station was being built in a park in front of their building. Now you have thousands of people protesting against just that,” Tanović explains,

Prospects for Change from Within?

Considering the decline in international presence and interventionism in Bosnia over the last decade, the importance of Bosnians’ own agency and involvement in trying to change a situation that they do not approve of is only increasing. So, how can Bosnia’s citizenry assume this responsibility? How can their discontent be turned into action that brings with it the potential for change?

In terms of electoral participation and change from within the existing structures, at least two potential ways forward can be identified. One is the introduction of compulsory voting, advocated by Huskić. Such arrangement would have the dual advantage of increasing – albeit by obliging – citizens’ political participation and thus activating the politically dormant voting body (which could be seen as a form of political education). At the same time, it would make “political parties a bit more cautious when it comes to addressing not only their own group but having to expand.”[19]

Another and more “natural” means of progress that could have the potential to increase electoral participation and political literacy would be the emergence of new political movements with different agendas, values and modi operandi. New parties could potentially activate the interests and agency of the large group of non-voters, especially those who do not find their views represented in the current system. In a country that was, until relatively recently, under communist rule for almost half a century, the political left is almost non-existent today, according to many of Balkan Diskurs’ interviewees.

“We do not have [a] true Social Democracy in this country,” says Jasmina Čolić. “There are many Social Democrats in both entities, but they have ruined the image of what social democracy is all about.”

Huskić supports this view. He explains “Nominally, there are Social Democrats in this country and there are parties which tend to be somewhat center-right…, but in terms of content, there is no difference whatsoever.” As an example, Huskić mentions the Alliance of Independent Social Democrats (SNSD) of Milorad Dodik, president of the Republika Srpska (RS). The RS, one of Bosnia’s two state entities, has, since 2006, taken an increasingly radical, nationalist line and now advocates for RS independence.

In the Federation entity, Huskić points to the recent left-right government coalitions between the Social Democratic Party (SDP) and SDA, “which were unthinkable before.” SDP consequently suffered its worst ever electoral defeat in the 2014 elections.[20] Notwithstanding the rise of the civic-based Democratic Front (DF), this suggests that there is considerable vacant space for progressive, civic and left-wing parties in Bosnia’s political landscape – especially parties that embody such values.

Despite the plenum movement’s outright resistance to interfering with mainstream politics in 2014, the tone is now somewhat different and a political solution is no longer completely out of the question.

“I think that we are becoming more mature in that we are at least thinking about and discussing solutions, which was something that we didn’t want to do before,” says Tanović. “Sometimes you need to enter the institutions in order to change something, and the more I think about that, the more I’m becoming aware that a political solution, a political party that would generate all those ideas we had…could have a positive impact on the political system in Bosnia.”

According to Tanović, raising citizens’ political and civic awareness is a crucial step.towards further instigating Bosnians’ involvement in changing their country’s political path for the better.

“One of the things I realized after the protests, was the need for further education among people,” Tanović says. “Education in the sense that they realize they hold their destiny in their own hands. But, they need to know much more about their political system and its policies in order to change something.”

A number of local initiatives, such as Izboromat and Javna Rasprava, are working to tackle the challenges to political participation by seeking to better inform, involve and motivate the public. Such programs can provide a channel for communication between citizens and politicians through easily accessible, user-friendly and interactive online portals. Tanović points to new, bottom-up initiatives and grassroots movements that are continuing their efforts to build on the networks created during the protests. One such movement is the independent trade union Solidarnost (Solidarity) based in Tuzla. “This work in the field and on the ground is extremely important. It’s the only way to generate new movements to change the political system,” she says.

The same education-focused rationale lies at the heart of K-143. This coalition of Bosnian civil society organizations does not see many prospects for change within the existing structures. “Considering the fact that the elections are not fair, we can’t really make any changes via the ballot boxes,” says Jasmina Čolić. Instead, the potential for change is found by giving direction to the public’s discontent and by gathering them behind a shared political project.

Accordingly, K-143 is working to build a state-wide civic constituency for their proposed municipalization model– a model for constitutional reform that entails a shift from the current multi-level system of governance to a two-level structure that abolishes the middle layers of government (entities and cantons) and strengthens it at the state and local levels. In their efforts “to build that critical mass,” K-143 gives presentations and engages local communities during visits to each of Bosnia’s 143 municipalities. The coalition believes that their model can serve as a concrete and unifying approach to mobilize and empower discontented, but resigned citizens, to sustain grassroots pressure – something that the protests and plenums did not manage to do. As Čolić explains, “There was no joint agenda [from the protests and plenums] and this is exactly what we are offering: a framework for a new social contract.”

Whichever model proves to be the ultimate model for change, it is becoming more and more clear that the change will be incremental rather than abrupt or revolutionary. According to Huskić, accepting this fact may itself be an impetus for an increase in the level of political participation that necessary in order to have a positive impact on the prospects for reform.

Huskić concludes, “We are all waiting for something to happen, but change is not going to come if they [citizens] don’t participate in this system…a return to a genuine political activism through political parties and the civil society organizations is the only way to go.”


[1] National Democratic Institute (2014), “Bosnia and Herzegovina’s 2014 Elections: Post-Election Analysis”, National Democratic Institute, https://www.ndi.org/files/NDI%20BiH%202014%20Post-Election%20Analysis.pdf.

[2] Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA), Voter turnout data for Bosnia and Herzegovina, http://www.idea.int/vt/countryview.cfm?id=18.

[3] Adnan Huskić (2014), “Elections in Bosnia and Herzegovina: A Revolution, Evolution or Stagnation?”, Contemporary Southeastern Europe, vol. 1, no. 2, p. 105.

[4] Srdjan Puhalo & Neda Perisic (2013), “Abstainers in Bosnia and Herzegovina: The Invisible Side of Elections”, Publication summary, Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung.

[5] Saša Gavrić, Damir Banović & Mariña Barreiro (2013), “The Political System of Bosnia and Herzegovina: Institutions – Actors – Processes”, Sarajevo Open Center, p. 71.

[6] Analitika – Center for Social Research (2014), Survey Results: A High Level of Distrust in Political Parties and Government Institutions in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Fact sheet, http://www.analitika.ba/en/publications/survey-results-high-level-distrust-political-parties-and-government-institutions-bosnia

[7] Tanović, Ines (2015), political activist, member of the Sarajevo plenum and coordinator for inter-plenum cooperation, Personal Interview, October 2015.

[8] The World Bank, Unemployment, total (% of total labor force), Data, http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SL.UEM.TOTL.ZS/countries?order=wbapi_data_value_2014+wbapi_data_value+wbapi_data_value-last&sort=desc.

[9] The World Bank, Unemployment, youth total (% of total labor force ages 15-24) (modeled ILO estimate), Data, http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SL.UEM.1524.ZS?order=wbapi_data_value_2014+wbapi_data_value+wbapi_data_value-last&sort=desc.

[10] Gorana Krstić & Peter Sanfey (2006), “Mobility, poverty and well-being among the informally employed in Bosnia and Herzegovina”, Working paper, European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, http://www.ebrd.com/downloads/research/economics/workingpapers/wp0101.pdf.

[11] Bedrudin Brljavac (2011), “Civil Society in Bosnia – obstacle or opportunity?”, TransConflict, http://www.transconflict.com/2011/11/civil-society-in-bosnia-obstacle-opportunity-411/

[12] Saša Gavrić, Damir Banović & Mariña Barreiro (2013), “The Political System of Bosnia and Herzegovina: Institutions – Actors – Processes”, Sarajevo Open Center, p. 82.

[13] Saša Gavrić, Damir Banović & Mariña Barreiro (2013), “The Political System of Bosnia and Herzegovina: Institutions – Actors – Processes”, Sarajevo Open Center, p. 69.

[14] George I. Balch (1974), “Multiple Indicators in Survey Research: The Concept ‘Sense of Political Efficacy’”, Political Methodology, vol. 1, no. 2, p. 1.

[15] Saša Gavrić, Damir Banović & Mariña Barreiro (2013), “The Political System of Bosnia and Herzegovina: Institutions – Actors – Processes”, Sarajevo Open Center, p. 70.

[16] Tim Judah (2014), “Bosnian protests: A Balkan Spring?”, BBC, 07.02.2014, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-26093160.

[17] Central Election Commission Bosnia and Herzegovina (2015), Izborni pokazatelji 2002-2014. godina, https://www.izbori.ba/Documents/2015/25052015/Izborni_Pokazatelji_2002-2014.pdf.

[18] Commission for the Coordination of Youth Issues et al. (2008), Analysis of the Position of Young People and the Youth Sector in BiH, http://www.mladi.gov.ba/pdf/Mladi_politika-EN_final.pdf.

[19] Adnan Huskić (2015), political scientist at the Sarajevo School of Science and Technology, Personal Interview, October 2016.

[20] Adnan Huskić (2014), “Elections in Bosnia and Herzegovina: A Revolution, Evolution or Stagnation?”, Contemporary Southeastern Europe, vol. 1, no. 2, p. 104.

Andreas Wiendel Rasmussen is a former intern at the Post-Conflict Research Center in Sarajevo. He holds a bachelor degree in Global Studies and History from Roskilde University and is currently pursuing his master’s degree in Political Science at Lund University.

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