The Art of Political Crisis: Can we Compare Belgium and Bosnia?

Eldar Sarajlic
Bosnia and Belgium

Since Bosnia and Herzegovina’s creation as a consociational state in 1995, the parallels between it and Belgium have been striking. After the peace agreement framed Bosnia’s constitution in terms of ethnically based semi-autonomous sub-state units (entities), scholars and analysts alike have been describing the country using elements from European historical experience, drawing not only on the Belgian case, but also that of Switzerland, Austria and the Netherlands. The recent political crises in Belgium and Bosnia and Herzegovina have made this comparison particularly apposite. Both countries have broken the existing records for the time it took their political elites to form a government after the general elections. The Belgian elections took place in June 2010; the government was formed in early December 2011. The Bosnian elections took place in October 2010; the government was formed only in late December 2011. If there were a contest for the duration of post-election negotiations, Belgium would be the winner, with 541 days of post-election vacuum without a government. However, both countries have gone through a serious political crisis that at times threatened the stability of their respective political systems. Scenarios of dissolution for both countries became more than hypothetical models.

In both cases, the root of the crisis goes deeper than the immediate political level, into the intricacies of institutional design, the power relations between the main political players, and the various proxies for constituent ethnic/linguistic groups.

Belgium: The Sixth Round

Since the early 1970s, the Belgian political system has evolved through five consecutive state reforms that transformed a once unitary Belgium into a federal state, consisting of three regions (the Flemish region, the Walloon region and the Brussels Capital region) and three linguistic communities (French-speaking Walloons, Dutch-speaking Flemish and the German-speaking group), each with their own area of responsibilities. Given that the process of institutional evolution has not been completely finished to the satisfaction of the main political players, there emerged a need to continue reforming the state structure. The status of the electoral circle Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde(BHV) has been an especially contested issue, triggering political negotiations aimed at a sixth round of state reforms. The main issue at stake here is finding the appropriate organization for the three levels of administrative (territorial) structure of the Belgian state. First, the level of language communities; second, the level of territorial regions; and third, the level of electoral constituencies. The levels correspond to one another, with each region belonging to a particular language area and consisting of monolingual electoral circles that enable group representatives to garner votes from their own language constituencies. The only exception to this rule is the electoral circle Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde(BHV), which by encompassing bilingual Brussels with the Dutch-speaking Halle-Vilvoorde enables Francophone parties to stand for election and gather votes across the language border, but prevents the Dutch-speaking parties from doing the same.

In 2003, the Constitutional Court of Belgium ruled the electoral law defining the BHV electoral circle unconstitutional, given that itviolates the non-discrimination principle and does not coincide with a monolingual province, as all other electoral circles do.The solution to this problem was at the core of the recent political crisis in Belgium. The Flemish parties advocated the split of the electoral circle to prevent discrimination. The Walloon parties initially supported the status quo, but finally agreed to the Flemish proposal. After 541 days of political negotiations, the government was formed, with Elio Di Rupo as the newly appointed prime minister. 

However, the status of the BHV has not been the only matter of dispute. The Flemish parties in general advocate more devolution of political power to the regions, while the Walloon ones prefer the status-quo. The differences pertain to the socio-economic realm as well. Most Flemish parties tend to seek a reduction in public spending, while Walloon parties advocate more taxes. The unemployment structure and the Flemish perception of being the paymasters of the unemployed Walloons significantly contributes to the differences in their positions.

Bosnia and Herzegovina: Dividing the Cake

The political crisis in Bosnia and Herzegovina also has institutional roots, but in a more indirect fashion. Similarly to Belgium, Bosnia and Herzegovina is internally organized to accommodate group claims, with the entity of Republic of Srpska (RS) dominated by Serbs, and the entity of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (FBiH) which is dominated by Bosniaks and Croats and further divided into 10 cantons.

The crisis first started in the Bosniak-Croat part of the country. Five months after the elections, the relative winner of the elections in the FBiH, the Social Democratic Party (SDP) (the most multi-ethnic of all the parties, but still dominated by Bosniaks) together with the Bosniak center-right Party of Democratic Action (SDA) and two minor Croat parties moved to form a government without the consent of the two major parties representing Croats in Bosnia and Herzegovina – the Croat Democratic Union (HDZ) and its twin-sister, the Croat Democratic Union 1990 (HDZ 1990). The move enraged the two HDZs, who then refused to recognize the legitimacy of the newly proclaimed government. The subsequent decision by the state’s electoral commission that the proclamation of the new FBiH government was illegal because it failed to satisfy the condition stipulating presence of parliamentary delegates from all 10 cantons of the Federation made their case even stronger. The High Representative of the International Community in Bosnia, Austrian diplomat Valentin Inzko, suspended the commission’s decision under the pretext of HDZ’s failure to fulfill the legal obligation of appointing delegates to the parliament in due time. The FBiH government, once put in place through the SDP-initiated coalition, has remained in power ever since.

Although the entity government was formed and legitimated half a year after the elections, the crisis in FBiH indicated the fragility of the organization of this part of the country. Being significantly smaller than the Bosniak ethnic group and fearing Bosniak majoritarianism, Croat political representatives, spearheaded by the two HDZs, insisted that the FBiH be divided into two separate ethnic parts. Claims for the establishment of the third entity had already been put forward by the HDZs during the election campaign, and having secured most of the Croat votes in the country, they saw the crisis as the opportunity to push this agenda forward. However, since the distribution of political power in Bosnia and Herzegovina stretches across different levels of government, the events around the formation of the state government have somewhat mollified Croat concerns.

The clash between Croat and Bosniak parties has also partly contributed to the stalemate at the state level. Having won the relative majority of votes in FBiH (24%, with SDA as the nearest contender with 20%), the post of the Croat member of the state (tripartite) presidency and the same number of seats (8) in the state parliament as the Serb main party the Coalition of Independent Social Democrats SNSD, the SDP saw itself as the sole winner of the general elections, (although the numbers for the country as a whole indicate differently). This led them to extend claims for appointing an SDP man as the state’s prime minister, a move strongly opposed by the SNSD and both HDZs, who insisted that respect for ethnic rotation of the prime minister’s post on the state level mandates a Croat representative for the next four years. After being pushed aside at the level of the FBiH, Croat representatives from the HDZ insisted on getting the prime minister’s post.

The crisis further deepened in April 2011 when the RS National Assembly announced a plan to hold a refPolitical games in Bosnia and Belgium.jpgerendum on the legality of Bosnian judicial institutions. This led to a clash between the High Representative (HR) Valentin Inzko and Milorad Dodik, the RS president and head of the SNSD, the most powerful Serb party in the country. Inzko threatened to remove Dodik from office if the plan for referendum goes into practice, while Dodik threatened to deepen the crisis by withdrawing all Serb representatives from state institutions. The episode came to a close with the visit of the EU foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, to Bosnia and Herzegovina in May 2011. Dodik made a strategic concession to postpone the referendum as “a sign of the good will”of RS institutions. Although it might have been seen as the defeat of Dodik’s subversion policy, the episode seems more to have eroded the position and authority of the HR and the international community, especially within Serb and Croat constituencies, because of their perception that the HR’s decision favours Bosniak political goals.

There were two main reasons why the crisis over the formation of the government went on until late December 2011. The first was the fact that the governing bodies at lower levels of governance (entities and cantons) had already been formed and put into operation. This was especially the case with the RS. Being ethnically homogeneous and practically ruled by Dodik’s SNSD in most areas of social and political life, the RS has had few problems implementing the results of the elections. Also, once established after half a year of negotiations, the FBiH government assumed routine operations: public resources, in terms of posts and control over public corporations have been distributed along the lines agreed by the coalitions of parties on the entity levels.

The second reason it took longer to negotiate the state government is the fact that no agreement on the distribution of ministerial posts could be reached without major parties making certain concessions. This was especially the case with the SDP, who after months of claiming the post of the prime minister, conceded it to the HDZ, seemingly as an attempt to soothe their anger over their exclusion from the FBiH government. The agreement between parties, reached just several days before the end of  2011, allocated ministerial posts along the claims made by the ethnic parties: the Serb parties got 3 ministerial posts, the Bosniak or Bosniak-dominated parties 4, and the Croat parties 2 ministerial posts and the mandate of the prime minister.

Taking Stock: Why Bosnia is Not Belgium

The comparison between Belgium and Bosnia, although handy to explain the structural problems internally complex countries such as these two face, still misses some important elements. First, Bosnia and Herzegovina is a post-conflict transitional society. As such, it has a far less developed civil society to serve as a buffer between a dysfunctional political sphere and the social needs of the population. Bosnia’s weak civil society is not only fragmented along ethnic lines but also reluctant to act in discord with its political allegiances.

Second, Bosnia’s public institutions are far more dependent on elite political will than is the case in Belgium, although both countries’ development policies seem to hinge on the consociational distribution of power. As a young state with weakly defined institutional competencies, Bosnia’s public sector cannot function on its own. Without the ethnic elite (party) consensus, most of the public sector segments would face extinction. The recent case of the shutting down of seven high-level cultural institutions showed the extent to which the fabric of Bosnian society is dependent on its political elite(s).

Third, while Belgium’s political crisis revolved around long-term state reform and some practical socio-economic matters, such as the character of its financial regime, taxes and spending, Bosnia’s crisis was primarily about the distribution of power at different levels of the state along party and ethnic lines. Although Bosnia has a number of constitutional issues at the top of its reform agenda – such as the non-implemented ECHR decision on Sejdic and Finci whose goal is to prevent further discrimination against people not belonging to three main communities– they have been rarely mentioned by the agents of the crisis, let alone debated or argued over.

The country also lags behind in the EU integration process: the European vision of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the scope of practical tasks needed to put this vision into practice, has been lost in the endless quarrels between Bosnia’s political parties. The prevalence of issues pertaining to recognition of ethnic rights and their translation into concrete political and economic power has completely obscured the importance of the problems of resource redistribution in Bosnian society. There is no clear strategy, nor any concrete activities aimed at the regulation of the country’s economic domain and the reform of social services. Unemployment has reached record levels with no strategy in sight for solving the problem.

The differences between Belgium and Bosnia and Herzegovina may serve to indicate a structural fact about Bosnia and Herzegovina, which has been so elegantly revealed in the course of the recent crisis. Unlike Belgium, Bosnia and Herzegovina is a country almost completely overtaken by its political elite. The political elite’s grasp stretches not only over the political institutions at various levels, but also over the society as a whole. The crisis has showed that without the political consensus between a handful of political parties (most of whom are considered to solely represent particular ethnic groups) no social, economic and political progress can be made.

This is not only a consequence of its peculiar constitution – which the comparison with Belgium is usually drawn from – but also of a number of other constitutive facts, from the country’s socialist past, the war-related developments, the character of its political elite, the regional context and, last but not least, the role of the EU and the international community as active players in the Bosnian political landscape. To understand Bosnia’s deep and structural problems, one has to go far beyond the existing constitutional make-up.

*Photo 2 by Véronique Philips