Mostar is the town everyone visiting Bosnia and Herzegovina has on their bucket list. But few of the tourists walking its cobblestone streets would be aware that it is the only city in Europe that has not had local elections in over a decade.
Throughout that time, residents of the city have watched the infrastructure around them crumble while local political forces quarrel over who gets to be in power and how. With no functioning city institutions to speak of, investment has dried up and Mostar's potential has ground to a halt.
So when an announcement came recently that elections will be held in the city for the first time in 12 years, it came as a surprise to its residents, who feel like their lives have been frozen in time.
“There are people like me who are almost 30 years old and who will be voting in local elections for the first time in their lives. I think it’s crazy that in the 21st century — and a democracy that Bosnia and Herzegovina is, according to its constitution — you have people who are of that age and didn’t have the right to elect their government until now,” said Boris Čović, a Mostar resident.
“I feel like the elections this year won’t be elections in 2020, but a repeat of the ones from 2008. We won’t continue where we left off; instead, we’ll have to travel 12 years back in time.”
It is not just the indignities of the postwar society in Bosnia that people of Mostar have felt on their own skin.
During the 1992-1995 war in Bosnia, mush of Mostar's historical centre was destroyed. That included the 1993 shelling of its Old Bridge — a UNESCO World Heritage site — by Bosnian Croat forces.
Ethnic cleansing and the persecution of civilians in Mostar caused a mass relocation of its citizens during the war. In turn, this resulted in the city being divided into two separate sides: the western part of Mostar became predominantly Bosnian Croat, with the eastern part mostly Bosniak.
Numerous crimes committed against civilians resulted in six wartime Bosnian Croat military and political leaders receiving a total of 111 years in prison at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague in 2017.
But in the postwar period, initial enthusiasm that the city might finally see better days after its reunification was quickly quashed by the two ruling ethnonational right-wing parties, the Bosniak SDA and the Croat HDZ BiH, which constantly blocked decision-making processes in the city by failing to reach an agreement on how constituencies were defined.
A provision guaranteeing an equal number of mandates in the city council from six existing electoral boroughs regardless of the number of votes was the main point of contention. The HDZ-proposed solution of compensational mandates ensuring this doesn’t happen was objected to by the SDA, who cited concerns that the Bosniaks living in Mostar would become underrepresented.
Their suggestion — a territorial reorganisation of the city with a unified city government, but also separate local units of self-government chosen by each borough — was flat out rejected by the Bosnian Croat representatives.
This turned out to be the source of the most monumental stumbling block that eventually paralysed the city. During this period where elections couldn't be held due to the political stalemate, the city had the same, now acting mayor and vice-mayor since 2008, while for the last eight years, the city hasn’t even had a city council.
Marin Bago, director of NGO Futura and head of the Naše društvo network, claims that the lack of a city council left the mayor’s office as the only decision-making part of the city government unchecked, allowing it to do as it pleased.
”But that doesn’t absolve it of all responsibility for operating contrary to the legal framework. This was damaging in many areas; for example, the communal infrastructure was crippled to the point where citizens were getting poisoned," Bago said.
"The behaviour of the government and public companies was, simply put, disastrous. I believe that we haven’t had a worse local government in the past 100 years,” he added.
Against the rule of law
This locking of horns meant that any attempt at organising elections since those of 2008 was deemed either against the city statute, or worse, unconstitutional. Some, like local politician Irma Baralija, believed that instead it was the status quo that was illegal and against the rule of law.
Baralija, who won her case against the country of Bosnia and Herzegovina in front of the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg in late 2019, where she claimed that the basic human right to vote and be voted for was being denied to the citizens in Mostar, says that her reasons for the lawsuit were both professional and personal.
“It’s a unique case in the democratic world where years pass by while nothing is happening,” Baralija said. “If you live in a society that’s democratic in theory, but you don’t have the basis of every democracy – that is, elections - then you feel like you were put in a straitjacket.”
With political bickering taking centre stage, the fact that the city became virtually unmanageable in the meantime did not attract the attention of anyone, with the residents of Mostar feeling that they have been left without even the most basic of services.
“A few times, out of personal, civic responsibility, I sent emails to the local offices to see whether they’d respond. I reported a dumpster that’s been full for 15-20 days, or potholes in the local roads. But, in the end, none of it was fixed because you don’t even know who’s in charge, or if anyone is at all,” said Čović, who works for a local cultural NGO.
Bago believes that the lack of interest in other parts of the country comes in useful to some of its political actors: “The rest of the country is well suited by what is happening in Mostar. We are being used as an excuse for their failings and a bad situation that many other cities and municipalities are in as well.”
Hopes for the future
Earlier this year, a renewed push for a solution by the international community in Bosnia resulted in a long-awaited agreement between the two political parties. Local elections in Mostar have finally been scheduled for December, but that does not mean that the city will immediately go back to being fully functional, nor that the agreement is without flaws.
However, Čović thinks this could be an opportunity to finally turn things around for Mostar.
“I am actually happy I’ll get to vote this year. I think others will also think hard about what to do with their vote, now that they got their chance. People in other parts of Bosnia take it for granted and don’t go out to vote, while people in Mostar are prevented from voting. I think it’s clear to the people of this city that things can’t go on like this, and it is high time for something to change.”
Baralija also hopes that the elections will result in a better, more progressive Mostar.
“My brother was born in 1995. There are tens of thousands of those born after the war who don’t remember the conflict and who never had a chance to vote. I hope that they will be the ones to make a difference.”
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