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Bosnia’s Bizarre, Dysfunctional Democracy is Certainly Coup-Proof

It is an issue that has plagued dictators for decades. Following post-World War II decolonization and the independence of numerous new states, a pressing concern for many dictators in the Developing World has been how to remain in power unchallenged. In other words, how to ensure their political survival.

In an effort to eliminate actual and potential challenges to their rule, dictators have opted for different paths. Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi chose not to build up institutions, particularly the armed forces, lest they one day turn against him. Syria’s Hafez al Assad had competing intelligence and security institutions. This ensured that any whiff of a challenge was both known quickly and dealt with brutally. What Gaddafi and Assad didwas “coup-proofing”.

Coups in the 1950s and 1960s were frequent enough – both successful and unsuccessful ones. The Romanian-born American geo-strategist Edward Luttwak published a book in 1968, Coup d’État: A Practical Handbook – a how-to guide for future coup plotters. It was rumoured that a copy of the book was found next to General Muhammad Oufkir’s body after his failed coup against Morocco’s king Hassan II in 1972.

The issue of how to establish a coup-proof regime remains much on the minds of dictators today, decades after Luttwak’s book was published.

While coup-proofing efforts typically centralize power with the leader and seek to eliminate any rival power centre emerging, Bosnia’s post-war political system offers an inadvertent and a counter-intuitive structure to prevent coups: excessive decentralization and democratization.

A coup in Bosnia is virtually impossible. Among the features of the political system hammered out at Dayton in 1995 is a high degree of decentralization, political fragmentation and dispersion of political authority and responsibility.

Real political power rests with party bosses, not with officials holding important positions. Take the state Presidency. The chairman of the three-member body, Zeljko Komsic, is officially the country’s top official. However, his party is not in power at state level, in the Federation entity, or in most cantons. Perhaps in no other country is this the case. The Bosniak member of the Presidency, Denis Becirovic, won election to the top body but does not call the shots in his party. Zeljka Cvijanovic, the Serbian member of the Presidency, also is not the boss in her party.

The real power in Bosnia, and most resources, lie at entity level. While Republika Srpska is centralized, the Federation is composed of ten cantons. The President and Vice-Presidents of the Federation wield no significant power once the government at the entity is formed. It is the Federation’s prime minister that has significant influence, but even he or she is hobbled by competing interests and by the demands of his coalition partners. Small parties, even individual members of parliament, play kingmaker and leverage their much-needed votes for ministerial and other appointments.

Then there are the Federation cantons. Each has its own coalitions in power. The Sarajevo Canton has the largest budget and is therefore a prize for political parties forming the government. Cantonal prime ministers preside over coalitions, with ministries and agencies parcelled out to different parties in power. Each canton has its own police force and the Federation’s effective control over the ten cantonal police forces is nominal.

Finally, mayors exercise significant power at local level. Successful mayors have become powerful actors. Some of the most powerful mayors were from parties not in power at the cantonal or Federation level.

Up until late 2022, many of the influential political parties in the Federation were both in power and in opposition simultaneously, at different levels of governance.

Furthermore, the chain of command is not vertical. A member of the Presidency has no influence over the Federation government or cantonal governments except through his own party’s appointees and elected officials – if they are in power, and assuming he or she wields power in their own political party. Similarly, the Federation’s prime minister has no effective control over the cantonal prime ministers.

In many cases, coups in different parts of the world have generally had a degree of popular support both to establish a power base and to sustain them. In the case of Bosnia, there is deep, widespread and growing apathy towards politics and politicians. Countless young Bosnians feel that their politicians have failed them. In response, many are voting with their feet in search of a brighter future abroad.

In such a highly decentralized system, a coup is virtually impossible because power is so widely dispersed. Coups are generally undertaken with a view to capturing the political centre of gravity, or establishing a new one in a centralized state. Without a political centre of gravity, a potential coup is both impossible and meaningless. This is good news: democracy in Bosnia, and the Federation more precisely, is here to stay. But the system of dispersed authority and responsibility needs  fundamental changes for it to provide effective and good governance.

The post-war political system in Bosnia has numerous deficiencies and is in need of major change. Until it happens, however, it should be a case study in political science classes around the world as an example of a coup-proof system.

Hamza Karcic is an associate professor at the Faculty of Political Science at the University of Sarajevo.

The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of BIRN.

Source : Balkan Insight