Polls have opened in the city of Mostar in the first local elections in 12 years following a dispute between parties representing the city’s two main ethnic groups that paralysed 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 reconstructed in the early 2000s, but the city remains divided along largely ethnic lines. Since the end of the conflict, the west side of the city is mostly populated by Croats, and the east side by Bosniaks.
For years, political blocs representing Mostar’s two main ethnic groups were unable to come to agreement on electoral boundaries, leading to a situation where rubbish went uncollected, public transport did not work properly and duplicate public services functioned on each side of the river.
“It’s an outlier from most of the other municipalities in Bosnia, but it does in a certain way reflect the situation at a higher level in the country,” said Florian Bieber, of the University of Graz.
Bosnia’s governing system is a multi-layered and complicated set of compromises designed by the international community, which some say help entrench rather than resolve divisions. The elections come 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 is long in the past, 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 is far behind other western Balkan nations in the process.
“Mostar has become a paradigm of Bosnia, in which ruling elites have tailored society according to their needs, living off taxpayers’ money and not showing any responsibility towards the people they are supposed to represent,” Slaven Raguz, the head of the opposition Croatian Republican Party, told Reuters.
While elites spar over power and financial resources, young people of all ethnicities in Mostar, and elsewhere in the country, face similar challenges of high unemployment and poor economic opportunities. Many have left Bosnia, seeking work abroad.
The election date was set after an agreement brokered by the EU, US and British ambassadors in June, together with the representatives of the main Croat and Bosniak political parties. It followed a 2019 victory in the European court of human rights by Irma Baralija, a philosophy teacher from Mostar who sued the Bosnian government for failing to hold elections.
Observers will be looking to see whether newer parties seeking to transcend the stronghold of the main ethno-nationalist parties will make gains. All three of Bosnia’s main nationalist blocs, representing the Serb, Croat and Bosniak populations of the country, suffered setbacks at municipal elections held elsewhere in the country last month.