Scribbling over ballot papers has become a norm with more and more young people getting disillusioned with the country's leadership and many more wanting to move abroad
SARAJEVO — In September 1996, a 21-year-old Nevena Skrbic was one among the many on a bus from Belgrade to Brcko in Bosnia, to vote in the first-ever elections in an independent and post-war Bosnia and Herzegovina. A Sarajevo native, she had been living in Belgrade since the war broke out in 1992, after Bosnia and Herzegovina had declared independence. But when she saw her ballot paper, she wrote Dusko Dugousko (Bugs Bunny) and drew an ‘x’ next to it – that’s whom she was casting her vote for. In subsequent local and general elections, Skrbic continued a similar practice whenever she lived in Sarajevo. However, this year, she skipped voting altogether. “Why waste money and time for a system that has only old men and doesn’t work anyway?” she said. At 43, she moved to her ancestral village 300 km south of Sarajevo, after the rent of her Sarajevo apartment was raised.
Skrbic’s tale of scribbling on the ballot paper is not an unusual act in Bosnia and Herzegovina. On Sunday, the country observed its eighth general elections. Bosnia declared independence in 1992 – which triggered a secessionist movement by the country’s Serbs that ended in 1995, leaving 100,000 dead; the Dayton Accords, which was signed to end the war, created a system of a directly elected tripartite presidency based on ethnicity. The country’s complicated system of governance includes a president to represent each of the ethnic groups – Bosniak, Serb and Croat – as well as a parliament with two houses, a Council of Ministers, and two prime ministers for the country’s two entities: the Federation (Bosnia and Herzegovina) and the Republic of Srpska.
And it is a system like this that has, among other things, led to nearly 45 percent youth unemployment, rampant corruption, crumbling health and education. The average monthly wage is just over $460. People like Skrbic chose to be one of the 47 percent that did not vote in the election on Sunday.
A total of 518 positions were being contested in this election. Nearly 3.4 million voters had to choose between 53 parties, 36 coalitions, and 34 independent candidates. The 53.36 percent voter turnout, as declared by the Central Election Commission is the lowest among the last four general elections: the turnout was 54.5 percent in 2014. There were also several instances of voting irregularities.
Throughout Sunday evening, people were glued to the television in cafes. By 11pm, there were firecrackers. In the Republic of Srpska, hard-line Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik of the Alliance of Independent Social Democrats (SNSD), who has insisted upon a separate Serb state and had met Russian President Vladimir Putin a week earlier, won the majority of votes. A departure from expectations was the majority votes won by Zeljko Komsic of the Democratic Front (DF) for the Croat presidency, over Dragan Covic of Croat Democratic Union (HDZ BiH), who has been insisting on a separate Croat majority entity. Sefik Dzaferovic of the main Bosniak party, Party of Democratic Action (SDA), won the votes to be the head of the Bosniak presidency.
“The election is a scam by those who have been in the system too long, and don’t want to leave their positions. Our system ensures politicians salaries for a whole year even after they may have left office. No other country gets so much in funds to rebuild itself after war. But the funds disappeared overnight. The war and its aftermath have made so many rich, that a large number continue to stay poor,” Skrbic said to me over the phone, from her house in the village where she had hoped to continue her freelance work as a Dutch-Bosnian translator. But erratic internet connectivity has meant that she has lost many work opportunities.
This is why she always scribbled on her ballot paper. Leaving it blank or not scribbling it off adequately would mean that the paper – and thus, the vote – could be misused.
Hana Dedic, 23, a medical student who took the task to count ballots in her municipality, returned home at 4 am on Monday. She texted me that she and her colleagues had to annul several votes because of similar scribbles. Many had written “Angela Merkel” and marked ‘x’ next to the name.
Dedic will finish her medical school next year, but she is aiming at heading north, probably Germany, soon. Her classmate Zulejha Omerbasic, 22, is sleeping fewer hours: German language lessons after a long day between the laboratory and the hospital.
“Very soon, German will become our second language, because everyone wants to migrate. There's nothing for us here. All politicians are invoking nationalism and going back to past hurts; none of them is talking about the future. Who can I vote for, among the Bosniak presidents? Dzaferovic is old while Fahrudin Radoncic [a media baron and candidate for Bosniak presidency] is into politics for his personal gain only,” Omerbasic explained. Eventually, on Sunday, she voted for Komsic, the candidate for the Croat presidency. This is something that the Croat Democratic Union has been wary about: Bosniaks determining the leadership of the Croat presidency, which they say, undermines the idea of Croat nationalism.
Omerbasic’s words about German as a second language resonate with the region's population data, which provides an essential context. In the first six months of 2018 alone, 5,620 families left Bosnia. The figure, compiled by a non-profit Union for Sustainable Return and Integration in Bosnia and Herzegovina, UZOPI, was 35,377 families. Five years ago, the number was 23,828.
Emir Porovic, 22, is preparing for an English language test to be an English teacher anywhere in the world. “If I don’t vote, I don’t have the right to complain. But we are also a country that is defeatist; we are pessimists. That’s what we have learnt to be, in the last 23 years,” he says.
His new acquaintance Karlo Andric, 20, whom he obliged with a cigarette and a seat at the same cafe table, added that the generation of parents have drilled it down to the bones of the youth to leave the country. “Their hopelessness has seeped into us. Older people say that we are the future, but are they ready to let us lead, for once? Do they even listen to us?” Andric said.
Almir Seckanovic, a journalist at Al Jazeera Balkans, says that the country has 600,000 people under the age of 30, and they can change the outcome of the election ... But only a small segment chooses to vote. Seckanovic himself didn’t vote in the 2016 local elections, because he didn’t find any candidate competent for the job. But this time, he is voting, and thinking in terms of which candidate has the best – and possibly credible – EU policy. “The youth deserve to be part of EU, and everything that the membership brings. Our complex political system could be simplified if we become part of the EU,” Seckanovic said.
Candidacy into the EU has been a long-standing conversation in the Balkans. Of the former Yugoslavia, Slovenia and Croatia have been members since 2004 and 2013, respectively. Serbia received its EU candidacy in 2012.
At an election centre near the mosque in Grbavica in central Sarajevo, voters walked in on the sunny Sunday afternoon, and stood for several minutes reading the posters in three languages – Bosnian, Croatian, in the Roman script, and Serbian, in Cyrillic) – that gave detailed instructions on how to vote. They took longer to read the long list of candidates.
“We can say that we have democracy. But, as Plato said, democracy doesn’t work if people are not educated politically, and I don’t feel educated enough about the system to want to vote,” Andric said.
Andric believes that the country’s multiculturalism is its biggest asset, as well as the reason why nationalist ideas keep winning. When asked if the Dayton Accords, which gave the country its Constitution, was helpful, he described it as "duct-tape to fix a broken car.” Hana, the medical student who counted votes, had told me previously, “The Dayton Accord is a pacifier when we know we are still at war in our minds.”
Ivana Maric, a prominent political analyst, insists that when it comes to various development indices, it is pointless to compare BiH to other European countries. “It might make better sense to compare the data in BiH to a third world country. We need to be realistic.”
But Seckanovic insists on going beyond Maric’s scepticism. “We need to ask ourselves: what has caused the deep pessimism in our country that people choose not to vote at all? We need people who truly love our country, because if they loved our country, they wouldn’t plunder it and lead Bosnia to be the poorest and most corrupt country in Europe.”