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The 1997 Bosnia-Herzegovina Municipal Elections

At thousands of polling stations, citizens lined up to vote for leaders who they hope will build a peaceful and prosperous future for them. Along with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the International Police Task Force, among others, you brought hope to this region of the Balkans - a region which has known only hardship and strife in this decade. You helped the civil implementation process take root in the daily lives of the people who have suffered the most. With free and fair elections, the Dayton Peace Agreement's ultimate goals for Bosnia-Herzegovina will have moved a step closer to reality. Thank you.
-- General Eric K. Shinseki, Commander, SFOR

During 1996 and 1997, a United Nations-authorized international armed force and a parallel civil organization were dispatched to Bosnia-Herzegovina in the aftermath of a 43-month inter-ethnic war that had bitterly divided the fledgling nation. The initial armed force, composed of troops from the United States, Europe and Russia, was called the Implementation Force or IFOR. It was replaced in late 1996 by a similar follow-on called the Stabilization Force (SFOR). Both had a variety of missions, all intended to increase the chances for a lasting peace in the Balkans. The particular challenge for SFOR was the municipal elections scheduled for September 1997.

The inter-ethnic civil war among Muslims, Croats and Serbs in Bosnia-Herzegovina ended in 1995 when the participants signed the General Framework Agreement for Peace (GFAP, also known as the Dayton Peace Accords). The three sides, generally referred to as the Former Warring Factions, agreed to both national and local elections as part of that agreement. The GFAP created two political entities on the territory of Bosnia, a combined Muslim-Croat Federation and a Serb entity called the Republika Srpska. The Stabilization Force (SFOR) was tasked by the GFAP to provide security and limited support to the election process in both entities. The local elections, called municipal elections, were in some ways more critical than the national ones. In many cases, these determined the ethnic composition of areas still under dispute after the war. Some groups and individuals saw the municipal elections as an opportunity to make new gains or at least recover control of areas lost in the 1992-95 war.

The National Elections were held on 14 September 1996. The three main nationalist parties won the elections, placing their candidates in the Presidency and gaining decisive majorities in the parliamentary bodies. The three presidents were Alija Izetbegovic (Muslim), Kresimir Zubak (Croat) and Momcilo Krajisnik (Serb). Izetbegovic was the Chairman of the Presidency and served in this capacity for two years followed by the other two Presidents for one year each. The victories of the nationalist parties did not immediately affect relations between the entities. However, some Bosnians viewed these victories skeptically and believed the nationalists would bring the country into war again.

This made the municipal-level elections extremely important to Bosnians. It also led to some unusual election arrangements as international organizations sought to prevent violence during the actual voting by creating different classes of polling place. During the war thousands of people had been forced from their homes in various "ethnic-cleansing" campaigns conducted by each of the warring factions. There was considerable concern that conflict would result when people tried to return to an area where they lived before the war to vote and confronted members of another faction living there now. In the TFE AOR, movement across the Inter Entity Boundary Line (IEBL) consisted of Muslims returning to their homes in the Republka Srpska to vote. Places, such as Brcko, Doboj, and Zvornik, were of particular concern because political passions ran high and memories of the war were frequently invoked by all sides.

The Bosnian Municipal Elections occurred on 13-14 September 1997. Voting took place in each of the 137 municipalities/opstinas in BiH. (Note: An opstina is equivalent to a county. Throughout this document, the word "municipality" is used interchangeably with "opstina.") The 137 municipalities/opstinas included split opstinas. In the Task Force Eagle AOR, there were 56 opstinas, including six split opstinas. A split opstina occurred when the IEBL divided it into Bosniac, Serb, and/or Croat pockets. For example, Rahic Brcko and Ravne Brcko were Federation opstinas while Brcko was a Republika Srpska opstina. There were six split opstinas in MND(N): Brcko, Doboj, Zvornik/Sapna, Teocak, Bosanski Samac, and Bosanski Brod.


Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE): The OSCE was the principal agency responsible for organizing, assisting and monitoring the 1997 municipal elections in BiH. The OSCE was composed of 54 participating countries, including all of Europe as well as the United States and Canada. It replaced the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE). The CSCE was created by the Helsinki Final Act of 1975 to serve as a forum to resolve disputes between Eastern and Western Europe. After the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the organization changed its name and broadened its focus on human rights and conflict resolution to include environmental issues and support to emerging democracies.

In 1997, the organization was helping Bosnia-Herzegovina hold elections and establish a multi-ethnic democratic government under the framework of the Dayton Accords. Two thousand four hundred and fifty OSCE supervisors oversaw 2,300 polling sites making it the largest election support effort in the organization's history. OSCE personnel had freedom of movement privileges through SFOR checkpoints.

International Police Task Force (IPTF): The IPTF was a United Nation's entity composed of civilian police officers from numerous nations. These officers monitored and occasionally assisted the Bosnian police in maintaining order on election day. IPTF personnel had freedom-of-movement privileges through SFOR checkpoints. IPTF responsibilities were covered in Annex 11 of the GFAP. It was responsible for monitoring and advising police (upon request) on the security situation at the polling places. Additionally, the IPTF generally:

  • Monitored to ensure that electoral regulations were strictly followed in the vicinity of polling places, particularly those regulations dealing with political activity, freedom of movement and access, and the posting of political propaganda.

  • Attempted to remedy violations of election security regulations by bringing them to the attention of local police officials, the LEC, and other appropriate authorities.

IPTF operations were hampered by the members lacking investigative or enforcement powers. IPTF members could only counsel and advise local police.

Soldier and RS Police at Traffic Control Point

Local Police: Local police were responsible for maintaining peace and good order in the immediate area surrounding the polling place. They were also responsible for providing overall civil order, freedom of movement for voters and candidates specific site security at polling places, and generally ensuring the peaceful conduct of the elections. In most cases, local police were unwilling or unable to carry out these functions, leaving SFOR with responsibility for good order and freedom of movement at and near many polling places.

European Community Monitoring Mission (ECMM): The ECMM was established by the Conference for Security and Cooperation in Europe in July of 1991. The European Community Monitoring Mission was composed of human rights monitors from the European Community (EC) deployed throughout Bosnia. The ECMM's principal responsibility was to report the status of the implementation of the GFAP. They published frequent reports on the situation in key areas in Bosnia. The members monitored the BiH cease-fire, no-fly zones, borders, and conduct of the elections. ECMM also had a mandate to mediate problems between the Former Warring Factions. ECMM monitors were located at the local and regional levels in BiH. ECMM personnel had freedom of movement privileges through IFOR checkpoints

During the actual conduct of the Elections, both ECMM monitors and local election officials often turned to SFOR for such functions as medical assistance and provision of drinking water for the voters.


This section clarifies several confusing issues surrounding the elections. The Bosnian municipal elections are very different from the way in which elections are held in the United States and several other western countries. An understanding of these differences will allow a better understanding of the elections.

Candidates run for the Municipal Assembly of their opstina, not for specific positions. During the Bosnian Municipal Elections, voters voted for parties rather than candidates. Unlike the U.S. where candidates run for specific offices, Bosnia had a system of proportional representation. In Bosnia each party prepared a list of candidates for the municipal assembly of an opstina that they wish to contest. This list is numbered from one to the number of candidates that party has, up to the number of seats in that opstina's municipal assembly. Each municipality had a unique ballot listing all of the parties running in that municipality, plus any independent candidates. The voter could cast his vote for one independent candidate or one party, but he or she could not pick a specific candidate for which to vote. The vast majority of voters voted for parties, not independent candidates. When all of the ballots have been counted, each party received a percentage of the seats in the municipal assembly equal to the percentage of votes that party won. In other words, if the municipal assembly of Opstina N had 100 available seats and Party Y won 50 percent of the votes, it received fifty seats in the municipal assembly. Candidates one through fifty on Party Y's list would get those seats.

Once the Elections for an opstina's municipal assembly were completed and the results confirmed, the party winning a majority in that opstina selected the mayor of that opstina (normally the number one candidate on that party's list). Many other key positions in the municipal government were decided in the same fashion.

Following the registration process, each voter was assigned a specific polling station. When each registrant's application was approved, they were assigned a polling station where they must go to vote on Election Day. Each polling station had a unique database specifying by name all of the voters assigned to that station. If a voter appeared at a polling station other than the one to which she/he was assigned, they did not appear on the polling station supervisors' list, and were not able to vote.

Waiting to vote near a Polling Site outside Brcko

Only residents of Bosnia prior to 1991 were eligible to vote. The base document for the 1997 Bosnian Municipal Elections was the 1991 Bosnian Census adjusted for the Election to include voters who came of legal age since 1991. Provision was also made for those who were residents before 1991 but whose names did not appear on the 1991 census. Those who could offer proof of residence were registered to vote. Voters had three basic options in choosing where to cast their ballot. Depending upon the circumstances outlined above they could:

1. Vote in person or by absentee ballot in their 1991 municipality as indicated in the adjusted 1991 census.

2. Vote in person or by absentee ballot in the municipality in which they lived on 6 April 1992, if they changed their place of residence between the 199l census and 6 April 1992.

3. Vote in person in the municipality in which they now live and intend to continue to live. They must, however, present documentary proof of continuous residence in the current municipality since 31 July 1996 or before.

The only person who must return to a municipality to vote was a "future intent" registrant. A future intent registrant was a refugee who elected to return to a municipality in which he/she did not live in 1991. A future intent registrant had to return to the opstina they wished to live in to apply to register. Assuming that their application was approved, they then had to return in person to vote on election day. The OSCE emphasized that this type of registration was not a right, and that applications to vote in future municipalities could be and sometimes were rejected.

All other Displaced Persons and Refugees could vote by absentee ballot, unless they specifically choose to vote in person. (This decision must have been made during the registration process so that the voter could be assigned to the proper polling station.)


A. Regular Polling Station: Polling station which contained ballots only for the voters who currently lived in the municipality in which the station was located.

B. "999" Polling Station: Referred to in some places as cross-IEBL polling stations. Contained ballots for the municipality in which the polling station was located. Served voters who lived in another municipality, but chose to return to vote in person. Most 999 Polling Stations were located just across the ILBL so that voters could cross to vote and then cross back without having to travel into Serb communities to register.

C. "555" Polling Station: Contained ballots for other municipalities. Served the voter who resided in the same municipality in which the station was located, but who chose to cast an absentee ballot for some other municipality.


On the days of the election, the polls were open from 0700 until 1900 (hours were sometimes adjusted slightly to allow for local conditions). Members of the political parties and independent candidates were permitted to witness all electoral processes, but could not have any communication devices, weapons, political literature or speak to anyone about their political position. Party agents were required to address all questions to the Chairman of the polling station. The Chairman had the authority to close the polling place if she or he believed that the place was threatened by, or actually subject to, violence. Polling place activities included monitoring traffic at the station, checking for and applying invisible ink to voters, and sealing and securing ballots in boxes.

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