Bosnia-Herzegovina’s ethnically divided southern city of Mostar is holding its first local election in 12 years on December 20, amid concerns that a surge in coronavirus infections could keep many voters away.
Thirty-five city councilors will be elected under the city’s new election rules. Those city councilors will then vote to determine Mostar’s next mayor.
Polling stations opened at 7 a.m. local time and will close 7 p.m. Preliminary results are expected around midnight.
The number of coronavirus cases and related deaths in Bosnia-Herzegovina have been rising sharply in recent weeks, with health authorities now reporting over 105,000 infections, including more than 3,600 fatalities.
In order to mitigate the risk of infection, voters at polling stations are required to observe strict physical distancing, wear face masks, and wash their hands. Voter temperatures are also being taken and polling stations are regularly disinfected.
Local elections were held on November 15 across the rest of the country, with opposition parties winning contests in the Balkan country’s two largest cities.
The results dealt a blow to long-ruling nationalists amid a wave of dissatisfaction with the handling the coronavirus pandemic.
The long-delayed vote in Mostar came after Bosnia-Herzegovina’s main Bosniak and Croat parties in June reached a last-minute agreement on a new statute for the city.
The deal was signed by Bakir Izetbegovic and Dragan Covic, the leaders of the Party of Democratic Action (SDA) and the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), respectively, following lengthy negotiations on the issue.
Mostar has not held municipal polls since 2008 because of the authorities’ failure to enforce a 2010 ruling by the Bosnia’s Constitutional Court that said the city’s power-sharing structure was unconstitutional and needed reform.
Ljubo Beslic, of the HDZ, has served as mayor of Mostar without a mandate since his term expired in 2013.
Last October, the European Court of Human Rights condemned Bosnia for its failure to change its election law and enable municipal elections in Mostar.
Mostar is a city of 100,000 people with a divided population, comprising mostly Catholic Bosnian Croats in its west and mainly Muslim Bosniaks in its east.
Bosnia’s Croats and Bosniaks were allied against ethnic Serbs during much of the 1992-95 Bosnian War. But the two communities also fought fierce battles over Mostar and other areas.
The city has reflected a tense situation throughout the country after the Dayton peace accord of 1995, which left Bosnia divided into two autonomous regions — the Bosniak-Croat Federation and the mainly ethnic Serb Republika Srpska — united under a weak central government in Sarajevo.
This post was originally published on Radio Free.