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Electoral Insight – International Electoral Co-operation

Electoral Insight – March 2006

International Electoral Co-operation and Assistance: Lessons from Bosnia and Herzegovina

Peter Woolstencroft
Associate Professor of Political Science, University of Waterloo
John Fraser
Former Director of Political Party Programs in Republika Srpska for the Washington-based National Democratic Institute for International Affairs

International electoral co-operation and assistance have become dominant features of elections, especially in the new liberal democracies. In the last 30 years, organizations – governmental and non-governmental, in North America and abroad – that have electoral assistance and co-operation as their central purposes have grown tremendously. While "free and fair elections" has become a widely accepted goal, the contested nature of democracy is evident in judgments about the quality of particular elections. The case of Bosnia and Herzegovina – complex because of the republic's violent birth and diverse ethnic population – illustrates a number of issues that international agencies and their field personnel must handle. One set of issues involves the registration of voters and the accuracy of voters lists. Another set relates to the uncoordinated work of municipal election commissions, which were also hampered by a shortage of personnel and funds. Electoral reforms in 2004 suffered from an ill-considered provision for representation of "ethnic minorities" on municipal councils. The varying interests of political parties and social entities have hindered election system development.

Since the 1980s, a rapid and extraordinary institutionalization of international electoral co-operation and assistance has occurred, especially in the case of the newly fledged liberal democracies of the last 25 years or so. This article identifies major actors in the world of international electoral assistance and co-operation; discusses the contested meaning of democracy; and, with reference to Bosnia and Herzegovina, Footnote 1 highlights some issues challenging the development of election systems.

The growth of international electoral assistance

At one time, a country's elections were its own business. National political systems developed policies, rules and procedures, unaware of how other systems handled problems, unconscious of "best practices." Even within countries, this was true. For example, in Canada, although elections had been a central feature of politics for over a century, national and provincial election officials had no systematic contact before 1970. The contemporary global interest in international electoral assistance reflects the emergence of globally shared values, especially concerning the desirability of democratization and the conduct of "free and fair elections."

Leading international electoral assistance and co-operation agencies

Internationally, limited efforts by the League of Nations and the United Nations aside, the first forms of electoral co-operation were largely driven by American ideals and interests. Footnote 2 For the first two thirds of the last century, the United States helped various countries establish and implement election systems. What Thomas Carothers Footnote 3 has termed the "first wave" of assistance to democracy – in the 1960s and 1970s – was primarily motivated by the American belief that democratization would counter Soviet-inspired political destabilization. Similar, but more ideological, thinking motivated the second wave of democratization that began in the 1980s. In the United States, private agencies emerged as part of "Project Democracy," which competed at the level of ideas with Marxism-Leninism. Footnote 4

Although some other countries had developed international electoral assistance programs prior to the second wave of democratization, the 1980s saw a veritable explosion of international agencies – governmental and non-governmental – with electoral assistance and co-operation in their mandates. Europe's developing interest manifested itself in the Charter of Paris for a New Europe (1990) and its Office for Free Elections, later the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR). The Commonwealth of Nations put election assistance high on its agenda. Leading international electoral assistance agencies are shown in the box.

The interactions between international agencies, on the one hand, and domestic institutions, political parties and social groups, on the other, are complicated by controversies about what constitutes "free and fair elections."

Contested concept: "free and fair elections"

The simplicity and popular appeal of the "free and fair elections" concept obscures its embedded contentiousness. Robert Dahl, a leading American political scientist, specifies a number of criteria that democracy requires. Citizens elect officials who control government decisions. Elections are "free, fair, and frequent" and "coercion is comparatively uncommon." Citizens can exercise freedom of expression "without danger of severe punishment." They have access to many, independent, and alternative sources of information, and the right to "associational autonomy." All of these are stated in the context of inclusive citizenship, understood as no denial of rights "that are available to others" and "are necessary" for the conditions mentioned. Footnote 5

Dahl's use of "comparatively" and "severe" indicates that judgments about electoral systems are a matter of degree. All election systems – even the well-established – have inevitable flaws and problems. Footnote 6 The American presidential elections of 2000 and 2004 raised concerns about the process in Florida and Ohio, respectively, states decisive for the final result. In the United Kingdom, the recent expansion of postal voting soon resulted in extraordinary abuses and the voiding of some municipal elections. Footnote 7

Eric C. Bjornlund, a lawyer highly familiar with election monitoring, observes that "there has been surprisingly little progress in the development of a practical set of criteria by which to judge whether an election has been free and fair." Footnote 8 The subjectivity of "free and fair" justifies his call for election monitoring to be based "on the methodologies and professionalism of observers and the quality of their analysis rather than merely on whether they endorse or question an election's legitimacy." Footnote 9

Although various election observation agencies, such as the United Nations Electoral Assistance Division (UNEAD), the Carter Center and the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (NDI), are currently developing standards and codes of conduct, two essential problems remain. Judgments about the conduct of elections are subject to partisanship, from which international agencies have not been immune. Second, democratic theorists differ on the merits of providing guaranteed representation by gender, or for specific social formations, such as ethnic groups.

International electoral assistance and co-operation in Bosnia and Herzegovina

Bosnian workers for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe sort absentee ballots cast in Bosnia's 1996 elections at an OSCE warehouse in a Sarajevo suburb.

The bloody break-up of Yugoslavia from 1990 to 1995 culminated in the Dayton Peace Accords, which legitimated the republics of Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia. In 1996, Bosnia held elections, which were noteworthy for being a studied and financially well-supported attempt to move from ethno-nationalist politics to electoral competition among parties that straddled its diverse communities and provided moderating influences. Footnote 10

The Dayton agreement resulted in the creation of the Office of the High Representative in Bosnia and European Union Special Representative (OHR) and assignment to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) of authority to establish elections (at the national, state and municipal levels), which followed recommendations from ODIHR. The attempt to "engineer" electoral processes had mixed and controversial results. Yannick du Pont, a well-placed European observer, noted that OSCE, having funded all parties in the 1996 elections (including one led by an accused war criminal), in the 1998 elections provided (now non-financial) support mostly to multi-ethnic parties. OSCE was criticized by ODIHR for its lack of neutrality. Footnote 11 Carrie Manning, an American political scientist, described OHR as using elections "as an explicit tool for sidelining the nationalist parties, encouraging moderates, and improving compliance with Dayton." Footnote 12 The 1996 elections were widely interpreted as reinforcing Bosnia's ethnic divisions. Footnote 13 Subsequent elections saw declines in support for the nationalist parties, though they remained dominant. Footnote 14

By 2001, a Provisional Electoral Commission, still managed by OSCE but with Bosnian representation, controlled Bosnian elections. A permanent Electoral Commission (Bosnian-managed with international representation) was established for the 2002 general elections. In April 2005, OHR announced that effective June 30, 2005, the three international members of the Commission would withdraw, marking a further step in Bosnia's electoral evolution.

Despite the Commission's accomplishments, major problems persist with voter registration, the accuracy of the voters list and fears of voter intimidation. Footnote 15 Approximately two million Bosnians were displaced by war or sought permanent residence outside the country. The largely successful return of confiscated property has not been matched by the populace's return to their former residences. Voters fall into one of three categories: regulars (living in their municipalities of registration); postal voters (living outside Bosnia and required to re-register for each election); and absentee voters (living in one municipality and registered to vote in another, but who may cast special ballots for counting and allocation to their municipality of registration).

In the first post-war years, there was justified mistrust of political parties, given the overwhelming strength of the hardline ethnic nationalist parties. Footnote 16 Fears of voter intimidation led to voters lists not being distributed to political parties. Latterly, voter intimidation has diminished sharply; however, the Commission's fear of the threat remains, so it is reluctant to display voters' addresses. The current voters list suffers from voters often being registered in the wrong polls. A more accurate list depends on the Commission's ability to engage the political parties in the updating process. Footnote 17

Notification of death remains a civic responsibility of the family (and not of attending physicians or hospitals), resulting in large numbers of deceased on the "current" voters list. Revising the civil requirement of death notification by assigning statutory responsibility to the health care system would be a simple improvement, easily undertaken.

Another problem with the accuracy of the voters lists lies in the varying performances of the municipal election commissions (MECs). Footnote 18 Their members are nominated by the mayors and councils of individual municipalities (and confirmed by the Commission); inevitably, there are partisan appointments. More damaging, however, are the MECs' uncoordinated activities. Many, but not all, set up centres in schools to register those who will be of voting age at the next election; few actively register "returnees" (i.e. displaced persons returning to their former properties, possibly registered to vote in another municipality). In some cases, political parties have an interest in keeping their "ethnic vote" registered as absentees and voting in their wartime (or immediate post-wartime) residences. Footnote 19 The effect is high party pluralities in particular seats (producing more parliamentary and council seats) to the detriment of voters' representation in their areas of residence. This was certainly the case in Bijeljina. Few of the approximately 15,000 Bosniak (i.e. Bosnian Muslim) returnees to this predominantly Serb municipality were re-registered as regular voters of Bijeljina. The only complaint came from a moderate multi-ethnic party (the Alliance of Independent Social Democrats – SNSD) that does not appeal directly to Bosniaks.

Monitoring the MECs' effectiveness has been hampered by a chronic shortage of personnel and funds at the Electoral Commission, a situation that may have been ameliorated by election law amendments made in 2004. They included:

  • regular funding for the Electoral Commission from the national budget
  • regular funding of MECs from municipality budgets
  • some new regulations on the composition of MECs
  • changes in the selection of polling station committees
  • changes to the regulations on the use of paid electronic media advertising
  • change in the fixed date of all elections
  • guaranteed ethnic minority representation on municipal councils

Encouraging minority representation warrants a closer look. Bosnia's three principal ethnic populations (referenced as "constituent peoples") – Bosniak, Serb and Croat – have certain rights enshrined in the constitution as accepted at Dayton and amended by the Bosnian national and state legislatures in early 2002. Footnote 20

The proposed addition to the national election law – so indeterminate that it was unclear how many seats on a municipal council would have been available to "ethnic minorities" – put the ethnic minority cart before the constituent peoples' horse. Footnote 21 While the constitution's 2002 amendments guaranteed a minimum standing for all constituent peoples in the national and state legislatures and in the government, no such provision had been made for municipal councils. The 2004 amendments could have produced, for instance, representation in the Banja Luka council for Hungarians, but not for Croats.

A Muslim couple in Sarajevo cast their ballots in the 2000 general elections in Bosnia.

What was the source of the "ethnic minorities" idea? This is a well-known project of the Council of Europe. Every Bosnian institution, indigenous and international, from Lord Ashdown, the High Representative, to the most junior member of a remote municipal council professes a commitment to doing everything required to "join Europe." Was the "ethnic minorities" idea placed with the Electoral Commission as a European standard?

NDI warned the Commission of the amendment's pitfalls and lobbied OHR, OSCE, several embassies representing countries of the Peace Implementation Council Footnote 22 and administrative staff at the national legislature. It remains unclear which political body – Bosnian or non-Bosnian – initiated the proposed change in municipal representation. OHR, according to one senior voice, insisted it was "out of the election business." Footnote 23

NDI held a round of meetings with embassy officials in Sarajevo to alert them to the wider implications of the amendments to the election law and, in particular, to potential problems created by amending the law after the election date was announced. Footnote 24 OSCE knew of and appreciated the situation, as it had a well-prepared commentary on apprehended problems with the election law amendments, though it is not known if its senior administrators had been apprised of the commentary. However, it appears that OSCE, having created and fledged the Bosnian Electoral Commission, was not prepared to criticize the Commission or impinge on its independence.

The Commission was also below complement. It was supposed to have one member from each of Bosnia's three constituent peoples and one "other." However, the Serb appointee resigned in 2002 and was not replaced, because supplementary appointive powers had not been established. The Bosniak member of the Commission had been seriously ill for many months and died at the time the election law amendments were going forward to the national parliament.

The national parliament passed this flawed legislation without comment from either the OHR political observers or any Bosnian politicians. Many international workers in the field of democratization have ample legal experience, but little or no experience with political party activities and the actual effects of election laws; thus it is probable that OHR observers did not have adequate experience to comment. Bosnian politicians have not established an effective committee system, wherein legislation is critically examined. Latterly, work by international organizations in this field has shifted from strict parliamentary committee work to the more currently popular idea of committees holding public meetings.

Although the 2004 amendments were passed by the Bosnian national legislature, the Electoral Commission declared that they would apply selectively to that year's municipal elections (paid electronic media advertising; changes in selection process for polling station committees). There was no change of election date or provision for guaranteed minority representation.

International organizations working in Bosnia failed to coordinate their activities, creating recipient fatigue. For example, often the same party activists were trained over and over by different organizations. Footnote 25

In sum, the case of Bosnia illustrates the complexities of electoral cooperation and assistance. Agency personnel must be cognizant of the difficulties in determining fair and free elections caused by the varying capacities of domestic institutions, the varying agendas of international agencies, and the varying interests of domestic political and social organizations.


Footnote 1 For brevity, henceforth we refer to Bosnia and Herzegovina as Bosnia.

Footnote 2 Yves Beigbeder, International Monitoring of Plebiscites, Referenda and National Elections: Self-determination and Transition to Democracy (Dordrecht, Netherlands: M. Nijhoff, 1994).

Footnote 3 Thomas Carothers, Aiding Democracy Abroad: The Learning Curve (Washington: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 1999).

Footnote 4 Carothers, Aiding Democracy Abroad, pp. 20–29.

Footnote 5 Robert A. Dahl, On Democracy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), p. 85.

Footnote 6 Beigbeder, International Monitoring, p. 145.

Footnote 7 Six municipal councillors in Birmingham were removed from office following a judicial investigation into allegations about postal voting abuses; see Richard C. Mawrey, QC, Commissioner, In the Matter of a Local Government Election for the Bordesley Green Ward of the Birmingham City Council Held on 10th June 2004 and in the Matter of a Local Government Election for the Aston Ward of the Birmingham City Council Held on 19th June 2004. Available from Her Majesty's Courts Service Web site: (Accessed May 31, 2005.)

Footnote 8 Eric C. Bjornlund, Beyond Free and Fair: Monitoring Elections and Building Democracy (Washington: Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 2004), p. 95.

Footnote 9 Bjornlund, Beyond Free and Fair, p. 121.

Footnote 10 Carrie Manning, "Elections and Political Change in Post-War Bosnia and Herzegovina," Democratization Vol. 11, No. 2 (April 2004), pp. 60–61.

Footnote 11 Yannick du Pont, "Democratisation through supporting civil society in Bosnia and Herzegovina," Helsinki Monitor Vol. 11, No. 4 (2000) p. 12.

Footnote 12 Manning, "Elections and Political Change," p. 69.

Footnote 13 Manning, "Elections and Political Change," p. 63.

Footnote 14 Manning, "Elections and Political Change," pp. 67, 82.

Footnote 15 With reference to the October 2004 elections, the topic of anomalies with the voters list and fears of voter intimidation arose in conversation between NDI and the Electoral Commission (March 24); with Mrs. Srbrenka Golic, chief of staff to the Alliance of Independent Social Democrats (SNSD) leader Milorad Dodik (February 23 and April 2); with Mr. Peter Djokic, leader of the Socialist Party of the Republika Srpska (SPRS) on April 7; and in comments received in training seminars for SNSD, SPRS, and the Democratic Peoples' Alliance (DNS) given by the NDI political party staff from February to June 2004.

Footnote 16 Serb Democratic Party (SDS); Party for Democratic Action (SDA); and Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ).

Footnote 17 Bosnia is the only country in the former Yugoslavia to provide parties with an electronic voters list, but it is in an inefficient, "unsortable" PDF format.

Footnote 18 The chairperson of a MEC is roughly equivalent to an electoral district returning officer in Canada.

Footnote 19 Meetings on July 14 and July 28, 2004, with Mr. Dimitrije Ivanic, MP (SNSD mayoralty candidate in Bijeljina); meetings on July 29 and August 10 with Dr. Lazar Prdanovic, MP (SNSD mayoralty candidate in Zvornik). Confirmed in discussions with U.S. Embassy political staff on July 8 and July 21.

Footnote 20 "Ethnic minorities" (numbering 17) have some constitutional standing as "others."

Footnote 21 The Bosnian constitution does not specify where the residual power lies or which level is paramount in overlapping jurisdictions. No Bosnian legal appeal has addressed the issues but Dayton does make the High Representative the ultimate authority in the land.

Footnote 22 Those countries that are guarantors of the Dayton Peace Accords.

Footnote 23 Meeting with deputy High Representative in Banja Luka, April 2, 2004. The head of the governance section of OHR's political department said that the OHR legal department had vetted and approved the amendments (meeting on March 29, 2004).

Footnote 24 Meetings were held on May 10 between NDI and Canadian Ambassador S. Whiting, U.S. Ambassador C. Bond and United States Agency for International Development officials; May 11 with A. Cole, U.K. Embassy Second Secretary; May 12 with A. Freiherr, German Ambassador, and A. Mollander, Swedish Ambassador; May 13 with Ambassador Humphries of the European Commission; and May 21 with Ambassador R. Beecroft of OSCE.

Footnote 25 NDI and the International Republican Institute are forbidden by USAID from offering "material assistance" to parties. USAID coordinates their training activities but other inter-agency co-operation depends on personal arrangements. In some cases, generous expense allowances lure activists.


The opinions expressed are those of the authors; they do not necessarily reflect those of the Chief Electoral Officer of Canada.