An Exotic, Yet Surprisingly Appropriate Government: A Look at Consociationalism in Bosnia and Herzegovina

Imagine a government with three presidents who have veto power over each other, all of whom represent different minorities in the country. A government where all three presidents simultaneously serve a four-year term and switch off every eight months when it comes to who holds the ultimate power. A government where the highest constitutional court is not appointed entirely by people in the country itself, but rather partially by an international body. A government where there is a foreign leader chosen by an international body who has the power to remove any elected official in this country on their own accord. A government with a constitution that contains an amendment process, but an amendment process which could only modify certain parts of the constitution and not others.

This hypothetical government probably evokes a number of reactions in the reader: certainly it’s exotic, but also strange, unconventional, probably ineffective, and seemingly the conception of somebody dead-set on watching the world burn. However, this quirky governmental style is not hypothetical at all. It’s alive and kicking in the small Balkan country of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which has had this form of government since the mid-1990s. Contrary to what may have been the reader’s instinctual reaction, this actually makes a lot of sense for the country’s situation, and while rare, this type of government known as a consociational democracy has existed throughout history in many countries all over the world such as Cyprus, Lebanon, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Macedonia.

The Solution to Insurmountable Divides 

According to the Encyclopedia of Governance, consociationalism is a “stable democratic system in deeply divided societies that is based on an elite cartel.” Upon reading the definition, one might underestimate the level of division in a society to warrant the need for a consociational government. One might think the United States is a “deeply divided society.” After all, Pew Research has found that partisanship is currently at its highest point in modern American history. However, “deeply divided” in the context of consociationalism means that the different groups in society were literally killing each other, which was exactly the case in Bosnia and Herzegovina in the 1990s (Democrats and Republicans are not killing each other… yet.) Or it can mean that the groups in question had differences and animosities that walked the line between solvable and insurmountable.

Consociationalism works because all of the groups who normally have trouble getting along get a say in the government through the elites that represent them and their interests. These elites get a say through constitutional provisions that mandate that institutions share power between the very diverse groups. This works in practice by having a constitution that says Group X must have Y number of members in Z Legislative Body or Council, regardless of the numbers of votes cast for each group in an election. Once again, this sounds foreign to Americans who are so used to the first-past-the-post plurality voting system in the United States, but even some institutions like the Federal Election Commission use a power sharing system derived from consociationalism as only three of the six commissioners are allowed to be from the same political party. While the FEC is not a particularly impactful body (at least as compared to the institutions that usually feature power sharing structures in the divided countries), it shows that even relatively integrated societies sometimes want to ensure that one group does not garner too much power.

Turmoil in Bosnia and Herzegovina comes to a Resolution

As alluded to earlier, the transformation of the Bosnian and Herzegovinian government to a consociational democracy came about after the country’s large-scale civil war. Prior to the 1990s, Bosnia and Herzegovina was a part of the former Yugoslavia that was made up of six distinct republics, and the entire country was united behind the Communist Party. However, the dissolution of Yugoslavia caused war in Bosnia and Herzegovina for many reasons. Among those reasons was the deep animosity and mutual distrust of the three largest ethnic groups in the country: the Bosnian Muslims, the Croats, and the Serbs. Over 100,000 people died in the Bosnian War between 1992 and 1995, but eventually the United States and other countries stepped in to help the parties come to a resolution and an eventual modus vivendi.

In 1995, the Dayton Peace Accords were agreed upon by the parties involved, which stopped the fighting and created a Bosnian and Herzegovinian Constitution. This constitution formed a central government for the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina, but most of the power was left to the two states contained in the country. On the one hand, there was the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (different than the Republic which is the overarching central government) which was territory controlled by the Bosnian Muslims and the Croats, and on the other, the Republic of Srpska controlled by the Serbs. The power that was allocated to the overarching central government was to be shared between the various ethnic groups, and interestingly also with foreign entities. Fred L. Morrison describes this power sharing in an article in the Constitutional Commentary Journal,

The central government is organized on a federalist scheme – but one driven to an extreme of states’ rights. Everything is apportioned in thirds – one part Serbian, one part Bosniac, and one part Croatian. The Presidency consists of three individuals, one from each group. The bicameral legislature consists of an upper house (House of Peoples) with five from each group, and a lower house (House of Representatives) with fourteen from each group. Each of these bodies is to have three presiding officers who rotate in office.

However, this gets even more complicated because one member of the presidency could say that a decision by the other two is “destructive of a vital interest of the Entity from the territory from which he was elected,” and then essentially veto it if two thirds of those in the legislature of the ethnic group representing the dissenting president agree. The upper legislative body also has what Morrison termed an “ethnic veto” because the individual ethnic groups have the ability to tank any legislation they do not like irrespective of the other ethnic groups.

Perhaps more interesting than the power sharing between domestic ethnic groups is the power sharing between Bosnia and Herzegovina and the world. Below is a bar graph showing the number of foreigners in the various government entities in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Source: The Constitution of Bosnia-Herzegovina by Fred L. Morrison

The constitutional court is made up of nine members: two from each of the three ethnic groups and “three foreign neutrals, appointed by the President of the European Court of Human Rights after consultation with the Presidency.” It must be odd living in a country where foreigners make up a significant portion of the highest court and therefore make decisions that govern your life. However, as stated before, the Bosnian and Herzegovinian government is decentralized with little power at the federal level as most of the power is reserved for the entities of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Republic of Srpska. Nonetheless, it may be surprising to learn that the individual with the most power is actually a foreigner who is appointed by the international community. The Office of the High Representative is occupied by a foreigner who has the power to dismiss elected officials in Bosnia and Herzegovina, enact “substantial legislation,” annul decisions by the highest constitutional court, and amend any Bosnian legislation. This kind of ultimate power is yielded to foreigners to ensure that Bosnia and Herzegovina is developing the way that the international community would like it to.

The Future of Bosnia and Herzegovina

Countries tend to move away from consociationalism after they become more stable as we see in cases like Colombia, Malaysia, and South Africa. I suspect that Bosnia and Herzegovina is moving in this direction and soon could be rid of these rules and institutions that undermine their sovereignty. The Office of the High Representative will shut down, but only after the international community agrees that the country has met the necessary conditions including the “Fiscal Sustainability of the State” and the “Entrenchment of the Rule of Law.” The country is also working on joining the European Union with a membership application accepted by the bloc in September, although the process to fully join will be long as many reforms are necessary. The stability of Bosnia and Herzegovina is reason for optimism and, even though their consociational government may be exotic, it makes sense for their situation and hopefully they will grow out of it in the near future.

Matthew Chakov

About Matthew Chakov

Matthew Chakov is a freshman in the School of Public Affairs pursuing a BA in CLEG (Communications, Legal Institutions, Economics, and Government). He is interested in politics and currently interns at a lobbying firm in downtown D.C. He is a Staff Writer at The World Mind in the Government and Public Policy column.