Bosnia holds vote amid mounting discontent and economic woes

Bosnia holds general elections Sunday against the backdrop of mounting social discontent as well as ethnic disputes and rampant corruption that are blocking its entry into the European Union.

One of Europe`s poorest countries, the former Yugoslav republic was rocked by violent anti-government protests in February in a popular uprising unseen since the end of the inter-ethnic war in the 1990s.

Thousands took to the streets protesting against the government`s failure to fight graft and introduce political and economic reforms needed for Bosnia to eventually join the EU.

"The social crisis is growing, the number of unemployed is increasing and conditions are rife for a social collapse," warned political analyst Enver Kazaz.

"Those who will come to power are likely to be quickly confronted with major social discontent" if they do not radically change things, he told AFP.

A handful of diehard protestors still gather outside the presidency every day in a bid to bring fresh blood and new faces in the government.

"Through this presence we hope to encourage the biggest possible number of voters to go to the polls to change these criminal authorities who have been systematically looting the country for the past 20 years," said Drenko Koristovic, a 59-year-old unemployed Sarajevo resident.

Nearly 3.3 million Bosnians are eligible to cast ballots on Sunday to elect three members -- Croat, Muslim and Serb -- of the joint presidency and elect a new parliament for the country`s two entities.Since the 1992-1995 war Bosnia remains split into two largely-autonomous halves -- the Muslim-Croat Federation and the Serbs` Republika Srpska. The two are linked by weak central institutions.

The country of 3.8 million is among Europe`s poorest. Unemployment officially stands at 44 percent and some 18 percent of population live below the poverty line.

The average salary is 415 euros ($525) a month. 

Bosnia is also plagued by corruption, which costs tax payers some 750 million euros ($945 million) annually, according to local non-governmental organisations.

To further exacerbate the situation, the damage caused by historic flooding in May is estimated at two billion euros or 15 percent of Bosnia`s gross domestic product.

Apart from a severe economic crisis, Bosnia has also seen a political deadlock since 2006 due to ethnic tensions.

Politicians from the three major ethnic groups -- Muslims, Serbs and Croats -- have failed to agree on major reforms required by Brussels for EU membership. Bosnia is lagging behind all other Balkan countries on the path to the EU.

In a bid to divert attention from this, politicians have once against turned to nationalist rhetoric to woo voters.

Bosnian Serb President Milorad Dodik, running for a new term, has continued to use the threat of his entity`s secession, telling a poll rally: "The aim of my policy is that we are less and less an entity and more a state!"

But this line is viewed with scepticism by many.

"I would like the Republika Srpska be independent, but I think it is not really on the agenda of political parties," said Djordje Mihailovic, an ethnic Serb from Sokolac in eastern Bosnia.

"This promise is like a bone politicians throw to the crowds as they fill their pockets."

Confronted with Dodik`s rhetoric, the Muslim member of the presidency, Bakir Izetbegovic, who is also running for a second term, has appealed for "unity" among Muslims.

Analyst Ivan Sijakovic said people were desperate for real change nearly 20 years after the war.

"If there are no policy changes, we will sink even deeper because the finances are exhausted," he warned.

An American diplomat urged Bosnians to vote "in record numbers ... against corruption and the cynical use of nationalism that are holding this country back."

"The people on the streets recognise that political platforms have remained the same while their living standards have continued to deteriorate," the embassy`s charge affairs Nicholas Hill wrote in his blog.

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