Nationalist parties in Bosnia made strong gains in Saturday's general elections in the ethnically divided Balkan country, punishing moderates who held many of the top jobs during the past two-years. But the top international official in Bosnia says he is confident that the country will continue reforms.

Initial ballot counting indicates that nationalists from each of Bosnia's three main ethnic communities are poised to gain most of the top positions, including the country's three-man presidency.

Before the vote, representatives of the United Nations, the European Union, and the United States had called for Bosnians not to return the nationalists to power because it would lead to their country's economic isolation.

Only 55 percent of registered voters turned out to elect the joint presidency and parliament and legislative assemblies in both of the country's semi-autonomous entities, a Muslim-Croat Federation and a Bosnian-Serb Republic. The elections had been promoted as a chance for Bosnians to bury ethnic divisions.

But the top international official in Bosnia, former British politician Paddy Ashdown, was trying to put a positive spin on the surprising surge of the nationalist parties. He says the results are a backlash against painful reforms undertaken by the country's outgoing moderate ruling coalition and not a victory for hard-liners.

"What the people of this country want is reform and change. What the last government promised was reform and change. Their complete failure to deliver that has caused people to cast a protest vote on them by moving to the only other parties on the block, which happen to have nationalist identity but which are, in the last two or three-years, becoming less and less nationalist," Mr. Ashdown said.

Mr. Ashdown says the nationalist parties have changed since they presided over the Bosnian war in the early-to-mid 1990s that was Europe's worst conflict since World War II. And he says the acid test for any new government will be how it administers justice and creates jobs.

With only preliminary results tabulated, nationalist Mirko Sarovic is poised to become the Serb representative on Bosnia's three-man presidency. Croat nationalist Dragan Covic has a clear lead for his community's seat on the executive. Who will occupy the Muslim seat is still uncertain, but a nationalist candidate is in the lead.

Muslim and Croat nationalists look set to have a majority in the Muslim-Croat Federation's assembly. And in the Serb Republic, nationalists have garnered more votes than moderates for both the assembly and the entity's presidency.

It will take at least two weeks for official results to be known.