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Europe

Turnout Slump in Bosnia's Crucial Election

In Saturday's poll, Bosnians were faced with the choice between reform or nationalism, and with it ethnic conflict. First figures show disappointingly low turn-out figures.

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Voters were faced with a crucial decision for their country

Bosnia needs change and fast.

That was the message given out by international peace envoys in Bosnia, who urged Serbs, Croats and Muslims alike to elect reformists on October 5, who they hope will set the country on a path to recovery before Western aid runs out.

Bosnia faced its sixth election since the end of the country's 1992-95 war and this time, leaders were up for election for a full legislature period of four years, unlike the two years in the past.

But observers have disclosed diappointment by preliminary turnout figures, which have shown just under 55 per cent of those eligible to vote - 10 per cent less than the last elections - have cast their vote.

No incidents

More than two million poeple were entitled to vote, and voting had taken place throughout Saturday without incident in the first run by Bosnian authorities since the 1992-5 war.

The European Union and the United States have both called for a pro-reform vote, fearing that current economic problems in the country could push voters into the arms of nationalists.

Nationalists could cash in on economic mess

In 2000, a multi-ethnic reformist alliance seized power from nationalists in Bosnia and the moderate Socialist Democratic Party, the SDP emerged as the strongest party.

Though signs are encouraging for a repeat reformist victory, the economic ground reality in war-scarred Bosnia could tip the scales in favour of the nationalists.

Despite a massive Western aid injection amounting to more than 5 billion dollars in the aftermath of the devastating war in 1995, Bosnia’s economy is in shambles.

From a post-war 70 percent growth in GDP in 1996, the rate fell to 6 percent in 2001. Foreign direct investment is scarce as potential investors are scared-off by communist-era bureaucracy, reels of red tape, law and taxes and a complex and corrupt administration.

With an unemployment level hovering at 40 percent, industrial output still less than half its pre-war level, battered infrastructure and average monthly wages of roughly $ 200, Bosnia’s economy is in dire straits.

Though rapid privatisation of Bosnia’s large firms is touted by experts as the answer to the country’s economic woes, in reality political parties – in particular the nationalist ones – have hobbled the process to keep control over these companies and their profits.

The result of the economic stagnation say experts is that ordinary people have felt little has changed and are becoming disillusioned. This in turn could provide fertile breeding ground for nationalism.

Nationalists will hamper reform

At a final election campaign rally on Thursday, nationalists were in top form as speaker after speaker of the hardline Serb Democratic Party (SDS) founded by fugitive war crimes suspect Radovan Karadzic, championed a fierce defence of Serb national interests.

Even the nationalist Croation Democratic Union (HDZ), which still has widespread support among Bosnian Croats was out in full force as some 10,000 supporters waved red-and-white chequered Croation flags and sang the Croation anthem.

There were similar scenes at the main nationalist Muslim Party of Democratic Action (SDA) with party faithful waving green Islamic flags and singing traditional Muslim songs.

The spectre of a surge in nationalism has alarmed economists. Most agree that the nationalists should not be allowed to win.

World Bank head Ingram told Reuters that the upcoming vote was crucial for the economy and that it was nationalist politicians who had hampered the pace of reforms, particularly in Bosnia’s Serb half.

"Whatever party wins the elections, they will not get our support unless they continue to support economic reform. This applies to nationalists in both the Serb Republic and the Muslim-Croat Federation," he said.

Ethnic tensions simmering below the surface

Bosnia’s economic problems are compounded by the fact that the Dayton accords that ended the war divided the country into two autonomous regions, a Serb Republic and a Muslim-Croat federation, split in turn into cantons.

The result is a weakened central government and tug-of-war for more power between the two halves.

Another problem, though not readily admitted today in Bosnia, is the latent ethnic tension between the Bosnian Serbs and the Bosnian Croats. Though ethnic-related incidents are now rare, most of them have no sense of shared identity or future.

For instance both the Bosnian Serbs and Croats have their own sporting and war heroes who share their ethnic identity, but not their flag.

Analysts say that though ethnic tension flaring into another war is unthinkable, ethnic division could hinder reforms and prevent Bosnia from pulling itself out of its economic quagmire.

A further issue that Bosnia's future parliamentarians will have to tackle is Bosnia and Herzegowina's aspired entry into NATO. The two armies of the country have to first be brought under one commando and Bosnia has to begin negotiations with the EU for a stability and association pact.

For that reason, candidates of all political parties, including the nationalists have to be ready for reform, says a spokesman of Paddy Ashdown, the current British High Representative in the country.

In an interview with DW-RADIO he said he has two clear appeals to the voters, "The first is: go vote! And the second is: vote for reform!".

Whatever the outcome of Saturday's elections, one thing is clear – Bosnia’s future leaders will have their hands full and their work cut out.