October 4, 2018 / 4:29 PM / 14 days ago

Bosnia's election campaign plagued by abuses, hate speech: monitor

SARAJEVO (Reuters) - The run-up to Bosnia’s Oct. 7 election has seen an unprecedented spate of campaigning violations, abuse of public funds and hate speech, anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International (TI) said on Thursday.

People pass by Milorad Dodik's pre-election poster in Banja Luka, Bosnia and Herzegovina, September 26, 2018. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic

The campaign has been awash with the sort of divisive ethnic rhetoric that helped trigger Bosnia’s 1992-95 war, raising doubt whether the country will be able to pursue a path toward European Union and NATO membership after the vote.

Officials in the main Serb, Croat, and Bosniak Muslim parties have also sought to “buy” votes from public employees by opening new public roads and offering free medical check-ups, and threatening those who reject the blandishments, the Bosnian branch of Transparency International said in a report.

“Party functions have totally merged with public functions,” said TI Bosnia program manager Ivana Korajlic, adding that there had not been such a blatantly dirty election campaign since the 1990s war.

“The abuses have been conducted in the most open manner ever. Direct threats and attacks, pressures on voters and vote-buying, which in the past had been somehow subtle, have become fully transparent. There are no attempts even to conceal them.”

She said that in just 25 days, Bosnian Serb separatist leader Milorad Dodik laid cornerstones for six public buildings, opened an artificial lake, a bridge, a factory, a hospital wing and a highway, and took political credit for all of them.

Dodik, who is running for the Serb seat in Bosnia’s inter-ethnic presidency, has also declared that one-off payments to pensioners in Bosnia’s autonomous Serb Republic (RS), where he rules, was a sweetener for voters ahead of the election.

Dodik has further told employees in a public company that they would lose their jobs if they cast vote for his political rival, the TI’s Korajlic said, and used crude language to attack rival political moderates and Western diplomats.

“Don’t any of you who is employed in Gacko dare to vote for Govedarica, we will kick you out of your jobs,” Dodik said at a rally in the eastern town of Gacko. He was referring to political rival Vukota Govedarica, head of the opposition SDS, which is part of Bosnia’s weak federal government.

On Thursday, Bosnia’s election commission fined Dodik and his SNSD party 6,000 euros ($6,912.60) for hate speech.

Korajlic said that Bosniak and Croat officials have also abused their public jobs to campaign for their parties.

Korajlic also said public broadcasters had become mouthpieces of the dominant nationalist parties, underlining the case of RS television in particular.

“This has grown to abnormal proportions in the sense of labeling people, calling for aggression, invoking hatred not only towards political opponents but also civic (democracy) activists. “A very hostile atmosphere has been created...”

Bosnia will hold presidential and parliamentary elections on Sunday after a campaign marred by reports of irregularities including fraudulent voter lists. A lack of reliable polls and accusations of electoral fraud and irregularities ahead of the vote are making predictions of the outcome difficult.

Dodik has been campaigning for greater autonomy and eventual secession of the RS, while Bosnian Croat leader Dragan Covic has called for the creation of a separate Croat-run region.

Reporting by Daria Sito-Sucic; Editing by Mark Heinrich

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