Large group with flag of Bosnia and Herzegovina © BOLDG/Shutterstock

© BOLDG/Shutterstock

An assembly of citizens in BiH has proposed a way out of the age-old problem of constitutional reform, pending for years after the Sejdic-Finci ruling of 2009. An interview with Nenad Stojanovic

01/10/2022 -  Serena Epis

On 2 October the citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina will be called to elect the members of the tripartite Presidency and of all the parliamentary assemblies of the country. In recent months, the reform of the electoral law has returned to animate the Bosnian political debate. After months of discussions, the political parties failed to reach an agreement for a reform, and at the same time the mediation attempt of the High Representative Christian Schmidt, whose proposals were met with several protests by citizens, also failed. The result is that tomorrow people will return to the polls with a system that discriminates against all citizens who do not identify with any of the three constituent peoples.

In February 2022, on the initiative of the European Union delegation in BiH, a citizens' assembly was held that involved participants from all over the country, who met for two weekends to discuss the constitutional crisis and the reform of the electoral law.

We interviewed Nenad Stojanovic, political scientist and professor at the University of Geneva, who participated as an expert and co-responsible for the planning of the citizens' assembly.

How did the citizens' assembly take place?

The idea of the citizens' assembly (Skupština građana ) was to bring together 57 citizens – 57 is the number of members of the two joint chambers of the Bosnian parliament – from all over the country to discuss and propose recommendations on the issue of discrimination the political system and the electoral law. With the collaboration of the IPSOS  research institute in Bosnia, 4000 letters were sent using a random distribution system, to which about 200 people responded, or 5%, a figure in line with the average recorded for similar initiatives in other European countries. On this basis we then made a second draw, this time using representation quotas. In the end, about 50 people attended the assembly. These were followed by a group of facilitators who guided them through the discussions.

You were directly involved as an expert and one of those responsible for planning the assembly, so you had direct experience of the initiative. What was the reaction of the participants? How did they approach meetings?

They were all very disciplined, committed, interested, serious. This experience confirmed what I had already been able to ascertain with the other assemblies, namely that “ordinary” citizens – in the sense that they are not politicians – once they have accepted this office, take it very seriously. In a certain sense, they are also grateful for having the opportunity to have their say on very important political issues such as electoral reform in Bosnia and Herzegovina. In fact, since the Sejdic-Finci ruling of the European Court of Human Rights in 2009, Bosnia is practically forced to change the electoral system, but so far politics has not been able to find a solution. So it is always impressive to see citizens who are not professional politicians discussing seriously and without any kind of inter-ethnic tension (obviously the groups were mixed, the participants were not divided by region or ethnic group). In the difficult context of Bosnia, working with citizens gives some hope, because they show that they are able to overcome these barriers, real or presumed, and work to build something together.

What solutions were identified by the participants?

The result of the assembly's work is a report with 17 recommendations .

Among the various proposals, as regards the tripartite Presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which does not include a representative of the "Others" group – or minorities present in the country – they have proposed an interesting and innovative solution, different from all those that have been advanced so far. First of all they suggested reducing the current powers of the Presidency, making it a representative Presidency by transferring some powers to the Council of Ministers. Secondly – and this is the really interesting element – they proposed that the members of the Presidency be nominated among the candidates elected in Parliament in order to guarantee their legitimacy. Each of the four Presidents appointed – one for each constituent people plus one representing the Others – would remain in office on a rotating basis for one year, after which they would return to their position as member of parliament. This is a creative and feasible solution, which when you think about it recalls a system that already exists in the UK, the so-called Westminster system. The rather interesting fact is that the participants came to this solution in total autonomy and without having such a system in mind.

As for the other issue – the election of the House of Peoples – the participants made a radical proposal, namely to eliminate the complementary Chamber, not only at the state level, but also at the level of entities. This proposal, certainly radical but which was also supported by the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe, was adopted almost unanimously. The participants discussed the usefulness of this Chamber and realised that in fact it only serves to block certain decision-making processes by evoking the famous "ethno-national interest", so in the end they proposed to abolish it.

What reactions have political representatives and local institutions had with respect to the results of the assembly?

Before the citizens' assembly, we did some preparatory work to involve local actors as well. Months earlier, we organised a presentation for journalists, to make them part of the initiative. Similarly, contact was sought with a group of representatives of the two Houses of Parliament, but this only worked to some extent. We also invited representatives of different parties to a meeting on the first weekend to discuss with the members of the assembly. Three of them showed up, one of whom was from the first chamber of Parliament and one from the second. The third is not an MP, but he is very close to a former Prime Minister. All in all, we had three fairly “high” profiles.

In March the results of the assembly were presented in Parliament before a group of MPs, it all ended there. Knowing the situation in Bosnia, I would not have expected anything else, unfortunately. MPs are rarely willing to follow the recommendations, there are those who decide to commit more than others, examining the proposals and perhaps writing a report on what they can implement and what not. In Switzerland, for example, in some cases there has been this type of commitment on the part of the authorities. In Bosnia this was not the case.

Going beyond the political-institutional level, how much and how has it been talked about in the country? Has a debate opened between the media and public opinion?

No, I would say that there has not been a debate as broad as we would have hoped. There have been articles in newspapers or portals, even Oslobođenje, the historic newspaper, dedicated two pages to this city assembly. Both my Sarajevo colleague and I have written an article, but we cannot say that this has sparked a broad debate.

I do not know why. It is clear that these assemblies are of little interest to the institutions. In a sense, they see them as an attack on their prerogatives, they do not understand the point of organising assemblies of citizens chosen by lot, for them elections are the only possible democratic method. But this is a general reaction that is everywhere, so it is not surprising.

In light of the result of this experience, what can be the value added of this instrument of deliberative democracy in the Bosnian context and in relation to the current institutional crisis? What remains of this initiative and what prospects for replication exist for the future?

What remains is certainly the idea that if you want to seek and find solutions to problems that may even appear difficult, you can do it. Solutions exist and maybe they are not even that hard to find. If a group of citizens who have never dealt with it managed to do it in two weekends, perhaps also politicians who do it by profession after so many years could have done it. If goodwill exists, solutions are found.

The direction for the future is to restore democracy in the hands of citizens. Today elections exist, but these are not enough, because once elected, political representatives tend to escape the control of citizens, for whom the only possibility of "sanctioning" them is to wait for the next elections. Every four years, however, citizens risk finding themselves trapped in ethno-nationalist logic: during the election campaign those in power immediately play the ethnic card, between those who want to eliminate the Republic of Srpska and those who want to create a third Croatian entity, etc.... It is as if it were a ping pong between them, instead of talking about what they have done or not done in the four years, the economy, the welfare state, the ecology etc., they prefer to talk about these big systems, issues affecting the structure of the state. In doing so, however, the idea of democratic responsibility – so-called accountability – is lost, this idea of politicians having to be accountable.

With respect to the need to restore democracy in the hands of citizens, in the past there have already been cases of initiatives born from below, such as that of the 2014 plenums. How is this experiment different?

The experience of the plenums is interesting because it shows that there is truly a desire on the part of citizens to engage in politics from below, to have their say.

The problem with the 2014 plenums was that they lacked a structure. It is very difficult to advance claims without a structure, because those in power have the resources, the legitimacy that comes from the Constitution, the laws, the elections. It was an important experience, but I was not surprised that it died out after some time.

What I think is needed is a reform of democracy that includes these democratic innovations. For example, I believe that citizens' assemblies should be institutionalised, obviously including the resources they need to function. We must go towards the model that has existed for some years in Belgium or in some cities such as Paris, Brussels, and Madrid that are trying to institutionalise these city assemblies, which, while not being able to make binding decisions, are able to influence the political agenda. In my opinion this is the direction in which Bosnia, but also democracies in general, should go.

This citizens' assembly was promoted by the EU delegation in Bosnia and Herzegovina. How important is the role of international actors such as the EU in supporting these initiatives?

Obviously it would be better if these initiatives were part of the institutions of the country, so that there would be no need for any external body. In this case it was the EU that promoted and financed the initiative, but the ideal would be that the assemblies were institutionalised and that there were ad hoc funds to allow it to function.

The problem when an external body such as the EU intervenes in this case, but it could be the Council of Europe or several other international organisations, is that there is always the doubt or suspicion that there is something behind it, some kind of agenda hidden. This may or may not be true, but the fact remains that this suspicion exists, and this is obviously not good. In this case, I think the EU also wanted to show local politicians that it is possible to do democracy differently.

Going beyond the Bosnian case, what potential do these deliberative democracy initiatives have, also thinking about the Conference on the Future of Europe, in light of the democratic crisis that many countries in Europe are experiencing?

It is important to mention the Conference on the Future of Europe; among the various options to be considered to improve the democratic quality at the level of the European Union, I think that the main solution is precisely to go in the direction of a greater number of city assemblies.

This tool has various advantages. First of all, the draw allows you to implement the principle of equality: within a political community everyone has exactly the same chance of being drawn, no one is excluded. I would say that two fundamental principles of democracy, namely inclusion and equality, are better guaranteed by drawing lots than by elections.

For those who are drawn, the assemblies represent a real school of democracy, because they not only allow them to dialogue and discuss, but also give them the opportunity to get out of their bubble and come into contact with people of different ethnicity or religion, such as in the case of Bosnia, but also simply by level of education or culture. These exchanges are very important.

Finally, there is also some value added for the institutions, because the results of the deliberations within the city assemblies offer a different perspective than the one that MPs may have on a given issue. Often in assemblies there are people directly affected by a given problem – such as unemployment – who can express their opinion. If the institutions were able to intelligently use the inputs that come from city assemblies, they would also benefit from it.

On the other hand, however, if the recommendations that emerge from these initiatives are not taken into consideration or are soon forgotten, is there a risk of aggravating the distrust of politics and institutions?

Of course, this risk exists, especially where these tools are used as an exercise-alibi by politicians who, in response to criticism, decide to organise assemblies with citizens chosen by lot, committing to listen to them, but then ignore their recommendations. It is clear that in the end this can have the opposite effect of what one would like, so it is important to clarify from the beginning what the commitment is on the part of the political power.

It is equally clear that it would also be wrong to expect an assembly of random draws to make decisions valid for the whole nation. For this reason, the ideal would be to combine city assemblies with the instrument of the referendum, as has been done in Ireland on issues such as abortion and same-sex marriages, for example. In this way, this bond of legitimacy is created between the city assembly and the entire population. I find this solution to be a rather clever way to combine two extremes, the draw on the one hand and popular legitimacy on the other.


Il sistema elettorale della BiH

Under the current electoral system, only three representatives belonging to the so-called constituent peoples can be elected to the collegiate presidency of Bosnia: Bosniak, Croatian, and Serbian. Likewise, the 15 members of the House of Peoples – one of the two chambers of the Parliamentary Assembly of BiH – are also elected from among the members of the main ethnic groups. This system is therefore discriminatory towards "others", i.e. all those who do not identify with these three groups. The European Court of Human Rights has addressed the issue in several judgments, first of all the Sejdic-Finci of 2009, declaring the Bosnian system contrary to the principles of the ECHR – of which Bosnia is a part – and inviting the country to implement the necessary reforms.




The experiment in deliberative democracy was the subject of discussion at the Mostar seminar as part of the Academic Platform on the Constitution and accession of Bosnia and Herzegovina to the EU. 


This material is published in the context of the project "Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Constitution and the EU accession. An academic platform for discussing the options" supported by the Central European Initiative (CEI). CEI is in no way responsible for the information or views expressed within the framework of the project. The responsibility for the contents lies solely with OBC Transeuropa. Go to the page dedicated to the project

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