IT IS easy to write off Bosnia as a dysfunctional country hobbled by unnecessary layers of government in which nothing works. In fact, despite an unduly complex system of government that was the price of ending the war in 1995, Bosnia works—but badly. The elections held on October 12th will probably not alter that. Yet to dismiss them as just one more round of political musical chairs would be wrong. Some change may now be in the air.
The war left Bosnia divided between the Serb-run Republika Srpska (RS) and the Federation, which is dominated by Bosnian Muslims (Bosniaks) and Croats. The Federation is divided into ten cantons. In February it was rocked by rioters demonstrating against their parasitic politicians. In May much of the country was engulfed by floods that caused terrible damage. Bosnia’s infrastructure is run down partly because so much money has been stolen but also because it has to pay for too many levels of government.
In the Federation elections, the Social Democrats, who have dominated the past four years, lost heavily; power has shifted towards a Bosniak nationalist party. But many urban middle-class voters moved to an entirely new party, called the Democratic Front, which could play a role in future governments.
In the RS, Milorad Dodik, its long-standing leader, lost support to an opposition that has become more credible. Mr Dodik wants the RS to secede, a move that could spark a new war. He will remain president of the RS, but it is not yet clear if his party will form its next government. His candidate lost the party’s seat in the three-person presidency of Bosnia to Mladen Ivanic, a politician associated with a period of progress that ended in 2006. The presidency is not a powerful position, but the return of Mr Ivanic, says Jasmin Mujanovic, an analyst, “is huge”. It suggests Mr Dodik’s long domination of Bosnian Serb politics is coming to an end.
After Bosnia’s elections in 2010 it took more than a year to form a government. This time it may be faster, but the worry is less about forming a government than about agreeing on how to share out patronage. Thousands of jobs in various administrations and state-owned companies are treated as rewards for the votes of families and friends. In a country of only 3.8m people these jobs give many a vested interest in preserving a sclerotic system.
Bosnia’s peculiar political make-up means that although politicians know what constitutional and economic reforms are needed, they find it hard to carry them out. Any big changes require the agreement of all main party leaders, whether in government or not. With local elections falling two years after the general and cantonal elections, no sooner have months of negotiations on power-sharing ended than electioneering starts again.
Both the election and the opinion polls reveal a popular demand for change. The country is stagnating politically and economically. The good news, says Peter Sorensen, the European Union’s representative in Bosnia, is that much work has been done on what needs to change in Bosnia—and that it is eminently “doable”. Bosnians just need to get on with it.