Political Pluralism and the Camel’s Back
The High Representative Unblocks the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina
On 27 April, the High Representative in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Christian Schmidt has unblocked the appointment of the government of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina by overriding the veto of the largest Bosniak party, SDA. The party, currently in opposition, had blocked the appointment of the government. Schmidt’s move could be a welcome breakthrough – the country has been ridden by abuses of ethnic vetoes ever since the Dayton Agreement. However, this specific imposition may have detrimental consequences for the future of political pluralism in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and any parties which want to outgrow the existing ethnic division.
Balancing stabilitocracy and ethnic power-sharing
The Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (FB&H) is a consociation within a larger consociation which is the state of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The Federation is de facto defined by two ethnic groups, Croats and Bosniaks, whereas in the state Serbs share power as well. Designed to end a war and ensure consensus between warring parties, the constitutional system is ridden with corporate power-sharing principles. The parliament of FB&H has two chambers, one consisting of elected representatives, the other of delegates from cantonal assemblies, which comprise ethnic caucuses. Both chambers have equal importance in confirming laws. However, only the ethnic caucuses have veto power. The government of FB&H is defined through the ethnic affiliation of the ministers (8 Bosniaks, 5 Croats, 3 Serbs). Additionally, there is a president of the FB&H, and two vice presidents, all three coming from different constituent peoples.
Natural consequence of such a constitutional design is a number of formal and informal veto mechanisms. This principle of ethnic proportionality and/or parity has created a political race in which civic parties have an uneven playing field – ethnic interests, ethnic vetoes and ethnic consensus are the leitmotifs of post-war Bosnia. All non-ethnic players are, to an extent, incompatible with the current system, and struggle to gain popularity.
The elections of 2022 carried a lot of weight on their shoulders. HDZ had blocked the Government of FB&H for four years, which meant that the 2014-2018 government – in which HDZ had its ministers – has covered the 2018-2022 period in technical mandate. HDZ has virtually held the FB&H hostage, asking for changes in the election system. Christian Schmidt (who was by some deemed as a supporter of HDZ in Croatia prior to his appointment) has rewarded their hardliner approach by changing the Constitution of FB&H on election day, after the polls were closed. Despite the timing of the decision, the fact that his changes favored HDZ while ignoring the long standing issue of the position of Others, was recognized as a sign of a stabilitocracy.
Ironically, the breaking of this stalemate brought about the current predicament – with this change, the former German Minister of Food and Agriculture has increased the number of the ethnic delegates in the House of the Peoples and introduced changes to the process of nomination of the president and the vice presidents of the entity. Changes originally introduced to „improve the functionality of the institutions of the Federation“ have backfired fairly quickly after SDA took control of the Bosniak caucus in the House of the Peoples, which in turn named an SDA vice president, who denied his approval of the appointment of a new government. Although the election results have allowed for a majority to be formed without SDA, they have decided to use the ethnic veto mechanism to try and force themselves into power.
On 27 April, Schmidt overrode the SDA veto, and decided to enable the appointment of the new government without the SDA’s vice president’s approval.
Parallelly to the unblocking of the government, the High Representative also announced the possibility of dismantling the veto of the vice president, by conditioning it with a 3/5 support in the House of the Peoples, a majority seemingly carefully designed to allow HDZ to sustain any of its future vetoes, while not allowing the same for SDA.
In a country whose constitutional system is marked by blockages and deadlocks, removing one such blockage „from above“ seems logical1) and reasonable – at the end of the day, the party that was blocking the process of forming the government represents only one part of the Bosniak electorate. This seems to be a significant fact for Schmidt. In his speech prior to the decision, as a particularly important circumstance, Schmidt mentioned the fact that unblocking is necessary because the existing FBiH government does not maintain the will of the voters. An uninformed reader would miss the fact that this failure to uphold the will of the voters has continued uninterrupted for the previous four years without interventions, due to HDZ’s blockade. However, the HDZ’s blockade is seen as a blockade of the constituent people, not just one party. The Croat political spectrum in BiH is homogenized, with only one relevant party for negotiations. In contast, the SDA, primarily supported by Bosniaks, does not have a monopoly on Bosniak votes (and ethnically non-aligned voters) and shares them with other ethnic and civic parties. Thus, when the SDA uses veto mechanisms, it is seen as pursuing its own party interests, not the protection of ethnic interest. Although aiming at changing the election system to ensure the strengthening of its position, HDZ’ veto appears as a legitimate Croat veto, worthy of four years of stalemate.
Is political pluralism sacrificed for stability?
As we have already seen, the power sharing qualities of the constitutional design create a disadvantage for non-ethnic/civic political parties. In a post-conflict atmosphere in which reconciliation still has not taken root, this corporate power-sharing has created a political arena in which ethnic outbidding is richly rewarded. By now, Bosnia and Herzegovina has become synonymous with centripetal political parties who put their ethnic interest above anything else, including the functioning of the state. This ethnic echo-chamber which keeps deepening the divide was recognized fairly early by the OHR and the international community. Growing political pluralism to move away from purely ethnic political parties is one of the most important goals of the Office of the High Representative. In his report to the UN Secretary General, Carl Bildt stated that the essential goal is to build a democratic society based on political pluralism. The Peace Implementation Council also cited the promotion of political pluralism as one of the essential goals, and the 2000 election results were praised precisely because they indicated that the country had reached a certain degree of political pluralism.
Improving pluralism is perfectly reasonable. Ethnic parties often question the existence of the state, and put ethnicity before the state. They are the so-called centripetal forces that prevent effective cooperation between different parts of a divided society and thus actively contribute to blockages and setbacks. Therefore, the international community, at least nominally, stood for breaking the dominance of the political parties that essentially participated in the war (with HDZ and SDA considered as such par excellence) in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Christian Schmidt, whose previous attempts have been criticized as detrimental to political pluralism is now turning the course of the international community by 180 degrees with his actions. His intervention on election day 2022 and the decision on 27 April send a clear message to the Bosniak electorate that Bosniak political parties cannot block like Croatian ones, because Bosniak votes are scattered across the political spectrum. HDZ’s blocks are tolerated, and accommodations are made to suit their interest, while SDA’s block are dismantled, simply because there is Bosniak plural competition. In the political climate of Dayton, which places ethnic harmony as a conditio sine qua non, and in daily political discourse in which the political future of Bosnia and Herzegovina constantly seems threatened, it is only logical that there will eventually be a reunion of Bosniaks around one party. Political pluralism, however, will not seem as a goal to be attained, but a naïve laying of ethnic veto weapons which others get to keep.
The creation of such a climate should not be a consequence of the actions of the OHR. In a society that still lives in a post-conflict context, regardless of the number of years that have passed since the war, favoring ethnic homogenization and eliminating political pluralism cannot contribute to a better functioning of BiH in the long run. Political parties that want to act beyond the framework of ethnic divisions and deal with problems that are common to all ethnic groups in BiH are already discouraged as the constitutional system of both FBiH and BiH favors ethnic parties. While previous High Representatives often tried to amortize this circumstance, which is a product of the necessity of stopping the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the new High Representative seems to have decided to go all the way with ethnic homogenization, and to completely discourage political parties that want to outgrow ethnic boundaries.
By tolerating an ethnic veto coming from HDZ, and swiftly acting when SDA abuses the veto, Schmidt has added more substance to allegations that the OHR and the international community now prefer one ethnic party to the other. The political pluralism of the Bosniak electorate, which is far ahead of Serbian or Croatian pluralism and has long been under the burden of the Dayton constitutional arrangement, is hurt by this short-term stabilitocratic approach This decision may not necessarily be the last straw, but the camel’s back is close to breaking.
|↑1||There is a wider debate about whether the High Representative has the right to encroach on the FBiH Constitution as an autonomous law of the entity. – former USBiH judge Josef Marko has indicated earlier that changes to the FBiH Constitution are possible only exceptionally, if those changes are necessary for harmonizing the entity constitution with the state constitution. But bearing in mind that the High Representative ignored this dilemma when imposing a solution on election day, this debate was put aside in the following.|
It would be great if author mentioned some basic facts from the B&H political and constitutional history.
1. Most of the Amendmends (over hundred of them) to the Constitution of the Federation of B&H enacted by the high representatives were in favour of Bosniak political parties and so-called „multietnic“ political parties.
2. For example, after the general elections in Bosnia and Herzegovina that were held in 2010, the Cantonal Assemblies of Posavina Canton, West Herzegovina Canton and Canton 10 did not elect the delegates to the FBiH House of Peoples for more than five months (mostly Croats). The delegates, who had been elected until then mostly by Bosniac political parties, constituted the FBiH House of Peoples, and elected the FBiH President and Vice-President. The decisions of the Central Election Commission of Bosnia and Herzegovina (“the CEC”) of 24 March 2011 determined that the elections for the FBiH House of Peoples were not conducted in all ten cantons in accordance with the provisions of the Election Law, and that the conditions for the constitution thereof were not met. In addition, it was established that the election of the FBiH President and VicePresidents, which was carried out by the Decision of both Houses of the FBiH Parliament, was not carried out in accordance with the Election Law, and the election of the FBiH President and Vice-Presidents was annulled. The High Representative Valentin Inzko issued an Order, temporarily suspending the aforementioned decisions of the CEC of 24 March 2011, as well as any proceedings concerning the aforementioned decisions. This decision was in favour of Bosniacs political parties.
3. The Constitutional Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina in it’s decision U-27/22 from March 2023 concluded „Initially (1995), the caucuses of constituent peoples at the FBiH Parliament had 30 members each, and the number (2003) was reduced afterwards to 17 members per caucus of constituent peoples and 6 for the caucus of Others. The challenged provisions increased that number to 23 delegates in each caucus of constituent peoples and 11 in the caucus of Others. However, the Constitutional Court observes that the number of delegates itself does not change the role of the House of Peoples of FBiH in the decision-making process, neither does the increase of candidates in itself favours any group of political parties, as the applicant is trying to portray it.“
4. Ethnic homogenization among Croats is the result of pre-election announcements by Bosniak political parties that they will elect „six eligible“ Croats. Also, the 4th election of Željko Komšić as Croat member of the Presidency further contributed to the state of mistrust between Croats and Bosniaks.
Thank you for your comments. Allow me to offer a short response:
The blogpost was not in any way an attempt to tell the whole story of the interplay between OHR and the ethnic/civic parties, and therefore only the facts relevant to the issue at hand were referred to.
1. As we are talking about hundreds of impositions made by the OHR, a statement that most of the decisions favored Bosniaks is an oversimplification and generalization. To say the least, that is a brave conclusion. What I would agree with however, is that the previous decisions of the HR were often in pursuance of greater political pluralism and removal of ethnic ultimatums of all kinds.
2. I do not see the relevance of the events described under 2. to either the general point of the blogpost, nor do I see them as „basic facts from B&H political and constitutional history“. In the same vein as I have failed to mention that specific incident, it may be said that I have failed to mention a hundred other interventions of the HR.
3. The change in the numbers of the delegates in the HoP is not something that I viewed as an issue in this post. I merely pointed to the fact that that change did not prevent the current predicament from occuring.
4. Ethnic homogenization of the Croat electorate is, I believe, a much more complex process than a mono-causal explanation offered in your point 4. However I do agree that Bosniaks voting for Komšić is a part of the explanation. I recognized the ethnic homogenization as a fact – an explanation of this phenomenon warrants a blogpost or even a paper itself.
In conclusion, it seems that you have misread my blogpost as an attempt to vindicate SDA or Bosniak parties, and claim that they are the victim. My intention was to point out an inconsistency of the HR’s approach to various ethnic blockages. My overall point is that the obviously HDZ biased approach of Schmidt is detrimental to political pluralism. I am not interested in figuring out whether the system was more or less fair to a specific party for the sake of that party or the people they claim to represent, my point is that, in the long run, the winners are ethnic parties, regardless of their affiliation.
Thank you for your reply. I have mentioned a few examples with the sole purpose of pointing out that it is not possible to discuss these problems without mentioning the entire context of B&H constitutional and political evolution.
I understand your point of view. But the question is, why the interventions of the HR should be considered only good when they reduce the importance of the representation of ethnic communities in the HoP!? Serbian and Croatian political parties believe (i.e „they fear“) that behind the idea of „removal of ethnic ultimatums of all kinds“ lies the desire for domination by the most numerous people – the Bosniaks. In the Federation of B&H, such fears are not without any examples. Also, if it is taken into account that Bosniaks make up 70% of the population in FBiH, it is clear what it means that the decisions of the High Representative „were often in pursuit of greater political pluralism and removal of ethnic ultimatums of all kinds.“ The degradation of political pluralism among Croats began in 2006, that is, from the first election of Željko Komšić.
The claim that Schmidt’s approach was in favor of HDZ is „an oversimplification and generalization“. This wrongly equates the interests of the Croatian people with the interests of the HDZ. In the Ljubić case, the Constitutional Court concluded that there was a problem with the representation of all ethnic groups in the House of Peoples. It is clear that Croatian politicians were dissatisfied with the earlier solution because there was a justified fear that they would be excluded from the decision-making process. On the other hand, it is obvious that Bosniak political parties had not shown a sincere intention to implement that decision.
The current solution is not perfect, but I sincerely hope that it will bring greater political pluralism within all ethnic groups, especially Croats. If anything, at least the „fear element“ is reduced. Maybe this will lead to the reform of „civic political parties“ and that they will finally recieve more votes from Croatian voters.
I believe that mentioning examples without explaining their relevance to the current situation, or their importance as overall principles and/or milestones is akin to cherry-picking and risks dilluting an otherwise meaningful debate. Although I do agree that understanding the entire context matters, I hope you do understand that this is a blogpost focused on current events and limited in its‘ word count, and as such it does not attempt to be, nor does it present itself, as a complete description and explanation of the situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
To answer your question regarding reducing the importance of ethnic representation of HoP – Bosnia and Herzegovina is not a unique state – there is a number of other power-sharing regimes in which various ethnic/religious/linguistic communities fear the tyranny of majority, and therefore employ various veto mechanisms to protect themselves. However, the veto mechanisms employed in Bosnia are by far the most rigid ones – they are corporate, they are in the hands of delegates (which are not elected), a very small number of delegates can control a veto (thus risking that an ethnic veto becomes a party veto – this happened in Northern Ireland and they have adapted their system and loosened the veto), and they can be invoked for a fairly big area of legislature. Similar vetoes employed in Northern Ireland or Belgium are much less rigid. Even the Venice Commission has recognized that the VNI in BiH and FBiH has an extremely potent chilling effect and that it should be reduced. The fears of Croatian and Serbian political parties are therefore void of any relevance – the VNI and other ethnic veto mechanism (both formal and informal) are extremely rigid even for standards of other consociations. Making these mechanisms less prone to abuse is something that benefits all the citizens, regardless of their ethnic affiliation, since it would streamline decision making processes, and make the parliaments at least a little bit less ineffective. At the end of the day, the 30 years history of the country being blocked or in the threat of being blocked tells a detalied enough story for any bona fide reader of political and constitutional history.
Regarding any fears of Bosniak dominance – although I understand that citizens in general do not understand that the level of protection enjoyed by constituent peoples is beyond comparison with any consociation, I believe that those should not exist within the informed members of the society – I believe that it is obvious to members of political parties and members of academia that any reforms of the veto mechanisms are still a very far cry of those vetoes being rendered ineffective. Simply put, Bosnia has the most potent veto mechanism comparatively. If you need to be further persuaded, I can send a number of very informed papers.
As I said, I do not think that the lack of political pluralism within Croat voting body is a simple matter, I do agree that Bosniak votes for Komšić have largely impacted the process of homogenization.
The claim that Schmidt’s approach was in favor of HDZ is an opinion held by many relevant commentators, both foreign and domestic, and it is well argumented and elaborated. I quoted one of those pieces, and can send you others if you prefer so. It is not a generalization as it is focused on one situation/incident – a generalization would require a number of separate situations that can be generalized upon. It seems fairly obvious to me that the last two reforms strenghten the position of HDZ, given the way the delegates to the HoP were chosen in relation to the population of the cantons, and the fact that for some reason 3/5 (a majority always held by HDZ (except maybe 2010, I am not sure), and very rarely by SDA or other Bosniak parties, especially with the current fragmentation of the voting body) is the relevant majority in his new proposal for the confirmation of the veto seems as an obvious HDZ bias. Plenković has outright bragged that he influeced the HR, and the HR was previously given a medal by HDZ, and comes from a sister party….I believe his lack of impartiality is fairly obvious to any bona fide observer.
Unfortunately I cannot agree or disagree with your statement that Bosniak parties did not show a sincere intention to implement the Ljubić decision, since the negotiations were held in Neum and we were never informed about the content of those negotiations, but we do know that NiP has shown a willingess to implement it, and the International community has tried to persuade the Croats (which were at the time focused on the Presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina) to accept a limitation of powers of the House of Peoples as a sweetener for Bosniaks parties to accept their demands– which HDZ has firmly declined (fn.92). It seems that, although there were Bosniak parties willing to compromise, HDZ was not willing to move an inch – and this was still rewarded by Schmidt. Regarding the Croatian fears of being excluded – that argument would have made sense in 1996 were we did not have any knowledge of the way the Federation will work. After 30 years, it is obvious that the HDZ is the single most important, and now unavoidable coalition partner. They have always mustered a 2/3 majority in HoP (except I think for 2010), and were not shy to threaten with using their veto. This domination existed without the implementation of Ljubić – it was a simple fact of constitutional life.
I do agree with your conclusion, but I believe that political pluralism is hardly achieved in a system which favors ethnic identification, and a system in which political parties abuse different fears their voters have. Especially not if Schmidt continues in this path – he cements these idea of three separate tribes which are the sole most important political factor. As far as civic parties go, I believe there are obvious examples of parties that are truly non-ethnic, although there are those who can be seen as crypto-ethnic to a certain degree. But, this subject warrants a deep dive and I would not dare simplify it.
Finally, I would like to thank you for writing such a detailed comment to my piece, it was a pleasure discussing with you.