Sarajevo: Bosnians are voting Sunday in elections seen as crucial to break political deadlock in the ethnically divided country and secure its entry into the European Union.
While the election campaign was dominated again by nationalist rhetoric from all sides, many voters and some politicians on Sunday said they hoped the vote could bring about real change for war-torn Bosnia.
"These are the most important elections since the (1992-95) war," Bakir Izetbegovic, a main candidate for the Muslim member of the tripartite central presidency, said.
"We are at a crossroads. Either we start to rise or we will slide down," Izetbegovic, the son of wartime Bosnian Muslim leader Alija Izetbegovic, told journalists as he cast his vote.
But the leader of the Bosnian Serb-run entity, Milorad Dodik, reiterated his long-time threat to secede if no agreement was reached with the Muslims and Croats that would allow the Bosnian Serbs to keep their autonomy.
"If there is no compromise, the option of peaceful separation remains, without violence, so we can live side by side", Dodik was quoted by SRNA news agency as saying after casting a ballot in his hometown of Laktasi.
At a Sarajevo polling station, voters tired of years of inter-ethnic strife also wanted change. "I voted for change and for a new party," said 50-year-old businessman Sejo Kahriman who backed the new multi-ethnic coalition party, Nasa Stranka.
"They (the nationalists) have been in power for years and they haven`t given us anything, they have been fooling us for years," he told AFP. At 3:00 pm (1300 GMT) turnout was at 35.71 percent, the electoral commission said, but there were no figures from 2006 to compare with. The total turnout at the previous election was 55.3 percent.
"We are noting a great interest from voters," commission president Irena Hadziabic told a press conference.
Almost 15 years since the war ended, Bosnia`s Muslims, Croats and Serbs remain strictly entrenched in their own communities. The Dayton peace agreement that ended the war divided the country into two semi-independent entities: the Bosnian Serb-dominated Republika Srpska (RS) and the Muslim-Croat Federation.
Each has its own government and they are linked by weak central institutions based in Sarajevo. Voters elect the central tripartite presidency, the central parliament and assemblies for the two entities. In the Serb RS they will also vote for a president, while in the Muslim-Croat Federation voters will choose district assemblies.
The international community that monitors Bosnia hopes the vote will bring a leadership that will work to overcome the ethnic divisions and push for the strengthening of the weak central institutions, a key condition for Bosnia to enter the EU.
In the Republika Sprska many voters were less keen on change and dismissed any suggestion that Bosnian Serbs should give up some of their autonomy to the central institutions.
"I believe that today we decide on the future of the RS. If we manage to elect those that will protect the RS then we are safe," said 36-year-old Milisav, who did not want to give his last name.
Bosnia has been politically deadlocked since the 2006 polls as Bosnian Serbs oppose any strengthening of the central institutions at the expense of RS autonomy.
"I was hoping for some changes but I am not sure it will happen. I am tired about hearing non-stop about ethnic rivalry," student Jasna Radovanovic, 27, told AFP in the Bosnian Serb capital Banja Luka.