Polls open in the city of Mostar on Sunday in what will be the first local elections in 12 years after a dispute between parties representing the city’s two main ethnic groups that paralyzed municipal institutions for more than a decade.
The city of 100,000, known for its picturesque Ottoman architecture, became one of the symbols of the devastating conflict in Bosnia in the 1990s, when its famous stone bridge was destroyed. The bridge was rebuilt in the early 2000s, but the city remains largely divided along ethnic lines. Since the end of the conflict, the west side of the city is populated mainly by Croats, and the east side by Bosnians.
For years, the political blocs representing Mostar’s two main ethnic groups were unable to agree on electoral boundaries, leading to a situation where garbage was not collected, public transport was not working properly, and the duplicate public services operated on either side of the river.
“It is an outlier for most other municipalities in Bosnia, but in a way it reflects the situation at a higher level in the country,” said Florian Bieber from the University of Graz.
Bosnia’s system of government is a complicated, multi-layered set of compromises designed by the international community, which some say help to anchor rather than resolve divisions. The elections are held just after the 25th anniversary of the signing of the Dayton agreement, which ended the conflict in Bosnia and created the future political roadmap.
While the bloodshed dates back a long time, the country is still struggling to overcome the legacy of the conflict and, although it hopes to join the European Union in the future, it lags far behind other Western Balkan nations in the process. .
“Mostar has become a paradigm of Bosnia, in which the ruling elites have adapted society according to their needs, living off taxpayers’ money and showing no responsibility towards the people they are supposed to represent”, Slaven Raguz , head of the Croatian opposition Republican Party, told Reuters.
As elites vie for power and financial resources, youth of all ethnicities in Mostar and other parts of the country face similar challenges of high unemployment and scarce economic opportunities. Many have left Bosnia in search of work abroad.
The date of the elections was set following an agreement negotiated by the ambassadors of the EU, the US and Great Britain in June, together with representatives of the main Croatian and Bosnian political parties. This was followed by a 2019 victory in the European court for human rights by Irma Baralija, a philosophy professor from Mostar who sued the Bosnian government for failing to call an election.
Observers will seek to see if the newer parties seeking to transcend the bastion of the main ethno-nationalist parties will make a profit. Bosnia’s three main nationalist blocs, representing the country’s Serb, Croat and Bosnian populations, suffered setbacks in municipal elections held in other parts of the country last month.
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