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Divided Nationalists Ahead in Bosnia Vote

Election Commission officials count votes in the central Bosnian town of Zenica Oct. 12, 2014.
Election Commission officials count votes in the central Bosnian town of Zenica Oct. 12, 2014.

Nationalists with little shared vision of Bosnia's future were in the lead in an election for the three-person presidency on Sunday, likely portending more dysfunction in a country still haunted by the divisions of a 1992-95 war.

Based on a partial vote-count, authorities said Bakir Izetbegovic, Dragan Covic and Zeljka Cvijanovic were out in front in the race for the tri-partite state presidency, as the Bosniak, Croat and Serb representatives respectively.

Results of elections for national, regional and local assemblies were expected on Monday. Turnout was 54 percent.

The presidency steers foreign policy but little else. The results, however, are an indication of the way the parliamentary elections may go too.

Izetbegovic campaigned on the need for a strong, unified state; Covic on the creation of a Croat entity within Bosnia, while Cvijanovic is part of a Serb bloc that advocates Bosnia's dissolution.

The presidency is part of an unwieldy system of power-sharing between Bosnia's former warring sides - Muslim Bosniaks, Orthodox Christian Serbs and Catholic Croats - set down by a 1995 U.S.-brokered accord to end a war in which an estimated 100,000 people died.

The highly decentralized and costly system frequently paralyzes decision-making, stifling economic development and efforts to create jobs for an army of unemployed.

Anger over factory closures, joblessness and corruption were at the heart of protests in February that turned violent in an unprecedented bout of civil unrest. Hopes that the violence might spur reform of a broken system quickly evaporated.

“I didn't vote for anyone; they're all the same. I just came to cast an empty ballot so they can't misuse it,” said Sarajevo pensioner Saima Alajbegovic.

Identity, statehood

Sunday's elections were dominated by still-unresolved issues of identity and statehood, and fielded few new faces. The votes for parliament risk being split between many players, raising the prospect of long delays in forming governments at the various levels.

That will only worsen Bosnia's economic outlook, already hit by devastating floods in May that inflicted damage totaling about 2 billion euros ($2.5 billion).

Some analysts fear a repeat of the February violence without radical change.

“I expect that poverty and social problems will increasingly put pressure on politicians to change the way they work, as opposed to coming from their own desire for change,” pollster and political analyst Srdjan Puhalo told state television.

The political system in Bosnia has spawned huge networks of political patronage through government jobs handed out to the party faithful, making change difficult.

“These elections are being won thanks to party foot soldiers, motivated to choose those who are already in power in order to keep their own positions,” said Puhalo.

Limited Western efforts to encourage reform of the political system in Bosnia have run into the sand. Izetbegovic, leader of the main Bosniak SDA party, vowed an end to the divisions and to kickstart Bosnia's stalled bid to join NATO and the European Union.

“It's high time to end the standstill and I think that politicians have matured enough to come out of this vicious cycle,” he said on Sunday.

“In any future coalition, I want to see parties that will have a program to help take this country out of depression and standstill and put it back on the track of Euro-Atlantic integration.”

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