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Low Participation in Bosnian Election Could Hurt Reformists - 2002-10-06

Bosnians are awaiting the preliminary results of the first locally organized general elections since the end of the Bosnian war seven years ago. Western observers fear the low turnout Saturday could give an edge to hard-line nationalist parties. Meanwhile, in Latvia, a recently founded pro-business party has won the highest number of votes in Saturday's balloting.

Only 55 percent of Bosnian voters went to the polls Saturday. Analysts say the low turnout is a sign of widespread voter discontent with politicians who seem unable to solve the ethnically divided country's massive social and economic problems.

Voters chose a new national parliament, as well as new legislative assemblies in the two semi-autonomous entities that make up Bosnia, a Muslim-Croat Federation and a Serb Republic. They also voted for the three members of Bosnia's presidency. Voters in the Serb Republic chose a new president too.

Preliminary figures are not due until late Sunday, but the low turnout could be bad news for reformist parties that have been attempting to bury persisting ethnic tensions among Serbs, Croats and Muslims.

Speaking from Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital, analyst Mark Wheeler of the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based research organization, says voters who favor the reformists are less reliable than those who support the big, ethnically-based parties. "It has to be said that the higher the rate of abstention, the fewer people that vote, the more likely it is that the nationalist parties will come storming back to power, simply because it can be expected that their voters are the most committed voters," Mr. Wheeler said.

Leaders of nationalist parties are already claiming success, but reformist leaders say they still expect to be able to form a moderate coalition government in the weeks ahead.

The European Union and the United States have made it clear that a vote for the nationalists would mean economic isolation and stagnation. But pre-election polls indicated that a two-year-old reformist administration disappointed many voters, because it failed to create jobs or ease the lives of ordinary people.

In the Baltic republic of Latvia, where polls say citizens are also exhausted after a decade of reforms designed to get Latvia into NATO and the European Union, voters chose to stay with the center-right, but looked to new leadership. They gave nearly 24 percent of the vote to a new party headed by Latvia's former central bank chief, Einars Repse, who campaigned on an anti-corruption platform and promised efficient government.

He is now likely to be tasked with forming a coalition to ensure that free market reforms are kept firmly on course, so that Latvia can achieve its objective of becoming part of the European mainstream.