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Bosnia and Herzegovina elections undemocratic, amplify ethnic divisions - Human Rights Court

Bosnian man casts his vote at a poling station in Sarajevo, Bosnia, Sunday, Oct. 2, 2022.
Bosnian man casts his vote at a poling station in Sarajevo, Bosnia, Sunday, Oct. 2, 2022. Copyright Armin Durgut/Copyright 2022 The AP. All rights reserved.
Copyright Armin Durgut/Copyright 2022 The AP. All rights reserved.
By Mared Gwyn Jones
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Elections in Bosnia and Herzegovina - an EU candidate country - are undemocratic and entrench the privileged position of dominant ethnic groups, the European Court of Human Rights ruled on Tuesday.

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The legal case was brought to the Strasbourg-based court by Slaven Kovačević, a political scientist and adviser to a member of Bosnia and Herzegovina's Presidency, who argued he was not genuinely represented.

The court found in his favour, describing the country of 3.2 million inhabitants as an “ethnocracy”.

Ethnic representation is “more relevant than political, economic, social, philosophical and other considerations” in the country’s political system, the court said.

Bosnia and Herzegovina was granted EU candidate status in December last year.

In response to the judgement, a European Commission spokesperson said Tuesday that the country needs to implement reforms to ensure the equality and non-discrimination of its citizens, “in order to open EU accession negotiations.”

Right to vote ‘limited’

Bosnia and Herzegovina’s constitution gives political privileges to Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs - the so-called “constituent peoples” - who are equally represented in the 15-seat House of Peoples and the tripartite Presidency. Persons without affiliation to the three dominant ethnic groups cannot be elected to these two institutions.

The country's territorial make-up also determines voters' rights. Only those residing in the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina can elect the Bosniak and Croat members of the House of Peoples and the Presidency, whilst Serb members are elected by residents of the Republika Srpska, where ethnic Serbs form the majority.

Slaven Kovačević - who claimed he is not affiliated with any ethnic group and who lives in the country’s capital Sarajevo, part of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina - alleged that he was unable to vote for the candidate best representing his political views in the 2022 legislative and presidential elections as his choice was limited to Bosniak and Croat candidates.

The Court found that these territorial and ethnic requirements amounted to discriminatory treatment.

Reforms an "utmost priority"

A European Commission spokesperson responded to the judgement Tuesday calling on Bosnia and Herzegovina "to fulfil the 14 key priorities identified in the Commission’s opinion of 2019 on its EU membership application in order to open EU accession negotiations.”

The spokesperson referred specifically to the fourth priority, which calls on Bosnia and Herzegovina to fundamentally improve its framework, including at constitutional level, in order to "ensure equality and non-discrimination of citizens."

“The European Council has also called on leaders to urgently finalise the pending constitutional and electoral reforms and these should be advanced as a matter of utmost priority," the spokesperson added. 

Calls for electoral reforms have been mounting for a decade, following the European Human Rights Court's ruling on the Sejdić and Finci case in 2012, which first cast light on the discriminatory nature of the electoral system in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The Commission is expected to publish a report assessing candidate countries' progress in their path to EU accession in October.

Earlier this week, European Council President Charles Michel said the EU must be ready to accept new candidates by 2030.

"This is ambitious, but necessary. It shows that we are serious," Michel said.

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