International election observers complained Sunday that hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Muslim and Croat refugees were prevented from voting over the weekend and that serious irregularities could call into question the validity of Bosnia’s first postwar elections.
Their critical assessment sharply clashed with the satisfaction expressed by a visiting White House delegation and by organizers of the election.
Sunday, President Clinton praised the Bosnian people for voting to give “life to the national institutions of government” and quoted his delegation as reporting the election was “orderly and calm.”
“Sunday was a remarkable step forward,” Clinton said in a statement.
Despite the striking lack of violence, observers said there were subtle techniques of intimidation and rapidly changing rules that discouraged refugees from voting.
Election organizers had anticipated that 100,000 expelled Muslims and Croats would return to the Serb territories to vote, but the actual number was closer to 20,000.
A polling station for refugees from Brcko was set up by Serb election authorities next to a mine field. Another polling station for Muslims expelled from Srebrenica was up a dirt road that was nearly impassable by automobile. And another polling station was 250 yards away from a mass-grave site.
In Srpska Gorazde, there were five polling stations designated for Serb voters and only one for expelled Muslims. When independent European election observers visited that single station, there were 2,500 Muslims who had been waiting for hours. Most of them were so angry about the delays that they went home.
“These people are refugees. They have a lot of suffering behind them, and after all that it is terrible that they could not give their vote to their people,” said Doris Pack, the German chairwoman of a European parliamentary delegation.
Pack described as “superficial” an assessment by Richard Holbrooke, the former diplomat who headed President Clinton’s delegation, and accused “Holbrooke and his friends” of trying to put too positive a spin on the elections.
The timely withdrawal of the 16,000 U.S. troops stationed in the NATO peacekeeping mission depends in large part on the success or failure of the Bosnian elections. If the voting needs to be repeated, or if results are invalidated, the troops almost surely will have to stay longer.
U.S. troops here were assigned a multitude of tasks on election day that ranged from helping set up polling stations to standing by with riot gear. There was concern that Serb mobs would attack Muslims coming home to vote.
The week before the elections, NATO commanders agreed to a plan by local election officials to set up separate polling stations in remote, out-of-town locations for Muslim refugees.
Rather than reassure Muslims, these security measures actually intimidated many voters.