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Registration Flaws May Force Bosnian Elections to Be Delayed

By Tracy Wilkinson
Los Angeles Times
SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina

Amid a growing outcry over flaws in Bosnian voter registration, international officials Friday said they were considering postponing municipal elections scheduled to take place in three weeks.

New registration figures revealed efforts by the Bosnian Serbs to stack the vote in strategic cities whose Muslim majorities were expelled during the war. Through a loophole in election rules, thousands of Serbs living abroad appeared to have been directed to vote in those cities to consolidate Bosnian Serb control of territory they had "ethnically cleansed" of other groups through campaigns of terror and intimidation, officials said.

While they said the practice technically was legal, this "electoral ethnic engineering" raised serious concerns about the fairness of voting in the cities.

Several non-Serb political parties, including the ruling Muslim Democratic Action Party (SDA) of Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic, threatened to boycott the election if municipal voting is not postponed.

The agency in charge of supervising the elections, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or OSCE, has joined the Clinton administration in insisting on going ahead with the Sept. 14 balloting, despite problems - including harassment of opposition candidates and violation of campaign rules.

But Friday, OSCE officials conceded the postponement of some or all municipal voting was a possibility. "It is an option under consideration," agency spokeswoman Aggie Kuperman said.

The rest of the elections, including the vote for a three-headed presidency of Bosnia-Herzegovina, would be unaffected.

After more than three hours of debate Friday, the Bosnian Election Commission failed to reach consensus on the registration issue. Bosnian Serb leaders want municipal voting to take place on schedule and it was unclear how they would respond to postponement.

Although the election is three weeks away, half a million refugees living abroad who will vote with absentee ballots - as opposed to those who will return to vote - begin mailing ballots Wednesday.

The election rule in question lets Bosnians vote in cities where they say they intend to live, as an alternative to voting in their current cities or their cities of residence before the war. All they must do is fill out a form indicating their intent and picking a city. The provision was aimed at facilitating the vote by refugees under the U.S.-brokered peace accord that ended Bosnia's war and called for elections a speedy nine months later. But critics say this lets leaders manipulate votes in various cities.

Short of delaying the municipal vote, election officials are also considering invalidating these particular registrations. But that move is also problematic because it could be seen as limiting those Bosnians' access to the election process, human rights experts said.