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S2E7 - HTWM Global Edition: Bosnia & Herzegovina with Dr. Irena Hadžiabdić

In June, hosts Brianna Lennon and Eric Fey, along with Managing Editor Rebecca Smith, traveled to Central and Eastern Europe to learn more about election administration in democracies overseas.

In this episode, they speak with Dr. Irena Hadžiabdić with the Bosnia and Herzegovina Central Election Commission about the state of democratic collaboration in Eastern and Central Europe, as well as some of the challenges like disinformation and harassment of female election officials that Bosnia and Herzegovina is facing.

You can find the election e-portal for citizens living abroad that Dr. Hadžiabdić mentions at https://eizbori.izbori.ba/.

High Turnout, Wide Margins Credits:
Managing Editor: Rebecca Smith
Managing Producer: Aaron Hay
Associate Producers: Katie Quinn, Abigail Ruhman

Transcription of the episode is as follows:

Eric Fey: Hey there, everyone. Before we get this episode started Brianna and I wanted to tell you a little bit about what we've been up to here at High Turnout Wide Margins and what you're going to be hearing over the next several episodes.

Earlier this summer, we took High Turnout Wide Margins global. Brianna and myself, along with managing editor Rebecca Smith, went to Eastern and Central Europe in June to learn more about election administration and democracies overseas.

Election administrators all over Eastern Europe are reacting to the recent invasion of Ukraine by Russian forces, and we wanted to bring you as much information as possible about what is being done to preserve and promote democracy throughout the region.

We reached out to a lot of our friends there, and in the next several episodes, we're taking you to Moldova, not only the poorest country in Europe, but it also borders Ukraine on three sides, and to the global summit on democracy in Europe, which was held in Budapest. The summit was hosted by the now dissolved ACEEEO or Association of Central and Eastern European Election Officials. But more on that later.

Brianna Lennon: Today, we're joined by Dr. Irena Hadžiabdić, a member of the Bosnia and Herzegovina Central Election Commission. We're speaking outside the global summit on democracy in Europe.

Dr. Hadžiabdić was the first woman to serve as the president of the Bosnia and Herzegovina Central Election Commission, and recently was awarded the International Foundation for Electoral Systems Josie Baxter Award. The award is presented to honor an individual who has proven a track record of exceptional dedication to election administration.

Fey: Before we get into the meat of the interview, we want to explain a few things. It should be of particular interest to American election administrators to hear about the election system in Bosnia. Just like American election administrators have been administering elections in a very fraught and contentious environment since 2020, it is a similar case in Bosnia.

Following the dissolution of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, Bosnia was plunged into a civil war that pitted the Serbian Orthodox Christians against the Croatian Catholics and the predominantly Muslim Bosniaks.

And this war was- this Civil War was particularly brutal, and at the end of it, there was a brokered peace agreement that left the country of Bosnia with a shared power structure amongst those three ethnic groups.

And the Central Election Commission is structured in much the same way where these three groups share representation and power on the election commission. So, it is, like I said, a fraught environment where it's quite often contentious.

And with the recent Russian invasion of Ukraine, there are competing political forces within Bosnia – pro-Eastern, and pro-Western, and so, it is a particular challenge for the election commission in Bosnia.

It's also of interest to myself as an election administrator from St. Louis because the largest refugee population of Bosnians outside of Bosnia is in St. Louis. We have over 70,000 in the St. Louis metropolitan area. So, we have a relatively large number that will- that will vote in the upcoming Bosnian elections this October of 2022.

So this is, I think, especially for Brianna and I, it’s a very special opportunity because there are a large number of Bosnians living in Missouri. We're both election administrators from Missouri, and so to speak with a member of the Central Election Commission of Bosnia and Herzegovina is quite a unique opportunity for us.

And so, with that being said, unless you want to say something else, I just wanted to start us off the same way we do in every podcast, and that's having our guest tell the listeners, how did you get started in elections? How did you end up – how did you end up doing what you do now?

Irena Hadžiabdić: Let me first start with, my pleasure to meet election administrators from United States and the best regards to the voters from Bosnia and Herzegovina who live in St. Louis and who had to leave the country after the terrible war that we had in '92 and between '92 and '95.

Well, I started my career in elections immediately after the war, when I got my first job with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which was actually the organization, I see, who got the task to conduct the first postwar elections in my country.

And I was one of the few employees interviewed to train the polling station committees. My voice was very loud because [in] my previous career, I worked at the court as a lawyer, and I think they took me because I was pretty loud, and I had to train at the same time 400 people in municipal building in my city, and for that, you need somehow to attract the people with your voice, to listen.

My first contract was for two weeks, and as you can see, I built my career in the election and in 2007 I ended as a member of the State election commission, and I served twice as the President of the Commission in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Lennon: So Irena, to start us off, I know that the electoral system there is really, really, really complex, to say the least, could you give us a little bit of a brief history of democracy in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and a little bit about how your election system works.

Hadžiabdić: So, for more than 40 years prior to the war in Bosnia, prior to the '90s – actually after the Second World War, we lived in a one-party system with the famous president, Josip Broz Tito, and it was one-party system, socialistic system, and actually, elections were not a big challenge.

And in '90s, when we got the first multi-party system introduced in our election reform, and actually, the failure of Yugoslavia was not welcomed by everyone in our small ex-Yugoslavia Republic – one of six – and we ended in a terrible war that lasted from 1992 till 1995.

And after the war and Dayton Peace Agreement, we actually got the chance to build the state from the beginning and we continue with a multi-party system.

But I have to tell you that international organizations came to assist Bosnia and Herzegovina to develop the first state election law and our election system.

For the beginning, international community was conducting election. The plan was – and we had elections, according to their – they call them provisional election legislation. The plan was that they organized first general and first local elections, but they stayed next five years and organized three next cycles because the country was still not prepared.

Finally, in 2001, we got our state election law. In 2002, we got the first state election commission, but international members were members together with nationals of that first state election commission, and international members stayed till 2006.

And they left when they realized that national election management body – complete national election management body is able to conduct elections on its own.

And we have a very complex election system due to complex political system and state structure. We have very demanding elections, but that's why we are so good in examples and sometimes, people call us as experts, which is a privilege now.

Lennon: One of the things that I did want to kind of just ask is we're at the summit. It's about electoral democracy. Why do you think that it's important that the summit's happening? And why did you feel necessary for you to be here?

Hadžiabdić: For us who are election commissioners, this type of gathering is actually possibility to learn and to get new knowledge. Of course, this occasion, has a special goal to gathers commission who would like to be a part of a new European Association.

But particularly today, for me, it was very useful to get this knowledge about the issues that can affect the election integrity, and that was a lot – it was a long day for all of us, but I can tell you that there is one part that we didn't touch a lot, but it can actually make our life very, very difficult – and I would like to say these are disinformation.

Because when disinformation is focused on election management body, they usually try to affect three parts of our works. The first one to tell – to publicity that you are the tool in a political hands. The second one – to actually affect election preparation, to tell the voters that elections are not very well organized. And the third – to affect the results with the fact that elections are like, not secure.

So they simply, usually, from our experience – present your work as some kind of manipulation, and instead of focusing on your work to prepare and organize elections, you have to defend yourself for nothing.

Lennon: I think that's the sentiment we're familiar with.

Fey: Absolutely. That's what we've been learning so far in this trip that although the details are different in each country, the challenges election administrators face are very similar across the world, and in that in that vein, because our time is short, I know later this year in 2022, Bosnia, will be having elections.

I'm curious if you could share with the listeners – I mean, you mentioned disinformation already – but what are the main tasks and challenges that your body is dealing with right now, in advance of those elections?

Hadžiabdić: General elections will be held in Bosnia and Herzegovina on October 2, 2022. We already had a lot of difficulties with preparation because the money for elections came last night [June 2022]. The decision on money transfer from the government and from the state budget was imposed by high representative who is the highest international figures still in our country, and it simply slows down all the preparation.

The other problem that we didn't expect to happen is actually the deep economic crisis that affected the whole world. So whatever we planned in our budget is much lower – the amount and items in the whole budget – it is much less than we actually need. Everything is – especially if you come to the election material – material that you need on election day, it is almost three times bigger, the prices are three times bigger.

Some paper – kinds of paper, you cannot even get quickly, and everything has to be produced in a certain deadlines. So, it's a lot of stress in election commission because of the lack of money provided on time –we couldn't engage people to work per contract.

We usually at this time of election preparation have almost 80 people engaged in our Secretariat. We are seven commissioners, and we have a small Secretariat of 65.

But we are doing, also, the audit of political party financing, not just conducting elections. So, we had to engage all the stuff that we have to be focused on, for example, checking the signature for political parties, from the supporters. Are they okay? Are they voters? Do they live in that election units? In order to certify and reduce the political parties and independent candidates for elections.

And all our employees, they had to leave their regular job. So, the other procedures are waiting and we are – it's always a lack of capacities when you don't have money, human and equipment, as well.

You cannot rent enough computers for the staff. So from now on, I hope that we will manage, but it's not everything so bad. There are also good things, like the first time we have this e-portal for our out-of-country voters, and I would like to use this opportunity to encourage voters from St. Louis and from other parts of the world, if they listen, to go to the website – official website of Central Election Commission, and to check e-portal and to register themselves to vote on October 2.

They can do it in diplomatic embassies. If there is interest, we will open the polling stations in United States, as well, but they always can send their ballots by mail. These are two options for our out-of-country voters.

Besides that, we have some novelties in the process on the polling station – whenever you introduce something new, you have to produce something new, and we hope that that will be actually the benefit for our election process, but we will judge when we finish.

Lennon: I have one really quick question, and it came up earlier you had asked this question , but it's in the same vein of things that we are dealing with that are relatively new to us, but I know that you've been dealing with it as well – and that is there are a number of gender disparities and election management, also in elected positions.

And you mentioned that you have been seeing increases in harassment for female election officials, and that's something that is now becoming a larger and larger discussion point – partly because of disinformation. How have you been seeing that in the election’s world? And how are you handling it?

Hadžiabdić: I would like to say that in Central Election Commission of Bosnia and Herzegovina out of seven members, we have two women. For years, I was the only one, and prior to my membership, there was always only one woman in Central Election Commission. Finally, two years ago, I got a younger colleague, so there are two of us.

This is not according to law [Law on Gender Equality in Bosnia and Herzegovina]. It should be two-thirds of women in every election management body. So, two out of seven is not enough.

But on the lower level – for the municipal election commission and polling station committees – we have much better proportion. Especially for the municipal election commission, because we in Central Election Commission approved the appointment, and if we see that gender proportion is not according to law – so if you have five members, three have to be women.

So, we are fighting for that, and we are we are almost 50/50, and that makes me very proud because – first of all, it's not just my battle. Now, I have my partner, but I also have to say that my male colleagues are sometimes also my partners, because they have to be my best friends, if I want to convince them – and me and my colleague are now convincing them that we have to provide that at least on our level. On the state parliament, we don't have any impact. That's problem.

But the other problem that I was talking about was the violence against women in general – in politics and public lives, and instead of decreasing, it is increasing.

It's not too physical. It's more verbal. Then, this fake news, disinformation – it's so difficult, you know, especially if the woman is on the top of some [governmental] body. She's the first target.

And the techniques in that attacks are so – I don't – I need the word to actually say.

For example, when I was the president of the Central Election Commission two porno movies were on my private Facebook, and I even didn't know this for a few days, until my son told me that I'm producing this movie.

So, it was my page was hacked, and I didn't close my private page. I didn't. I just get rid of these movies, and I continue – so, you have to speak about that. You have to try your best. And you have to – actually if you are the target, you have really to share your experience, to ask for assistance – other institutions should be involved. The worst thing is because sometimes we are shamed, and we are quiet, and this is not good. So, we have to I mean, speak about that.

It's not nice, but it is going on, and we have to find a way to prevent it. I am not the specialist, but I very openly speak about that, and very, very often together with my colleague, that is our priority, and we will fight against that.

Fey: Well, our time is short. So, really, probably don't have time for any more questions. But one request maybe or comment. You mentioned a little earlier about the process for Bosnian citizens living outside of the country and how they can register and vote. Would you like to send a message in your native language back to these folks about how to do that?

Hadžiabdić: Message in Bosnian

Aaron Hay: Hey, this is Aaron, the managing producer here at High Turnout Wide Margins. Just going to sum up quickly what Dr. Hadziabdic said there – basically inviting all the Bosnian voters that live in St. Louis, to check out the Central Election Commission of Bosnia and Herzegovina's website in order to sign up to vote.

There's a web portal there that allows you to locate upcoming elections that are being held. So you are able to vote. This election is being held, again, on October 2, 2022. Thanks.

Fey: Alright, so, much like American election administrators have professional membership organizations, there's an association of Central and Eastern European election officials that has existed for almost 30 years [the ACEEEO].

And after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, there were calls from some members of this organization to expel Russia and Belarus from the organization. There was not consensus on whether or not that should happen, and the only thing that members could agree on was to dissolve the organization.

So, the conflict in Ukraine has spilled over into just the professional organization of election officials in that part of the world, and I think it just goes to show that – just like in the United States – some of these kind of wider geopolitical events can have an effect on just the day-to-day operation of some election administrators.

Lennon: Really quickly before we kind of dive into why it's important now, it's important to point out that the ACEEEO is this long-standing association founded in 1991 to allow election administrators from all of these different countries in Europe to come together and share best practices – how they're serving democracy, how they're working on elections every day.

And these conflicts and the Ukrainian invasion have really caused this division that I don't think anybody in the ACEEEO intended for, and the fact that they're now meeting in this Global Summit shows that election administrators are continuing to try to find paths forward to come together and continue working on democracy – on the nuts and bolts of democracy, and that's really why we're here to talk about that.

Fey: Alright, so I guess what we're getting at, Irena, is why is right now in Eastern and Central Europe, an important time for election officials to come together?

Hadžiabdić: Well, we heard today that there was actually these technicalities who actually couldn't make all members to have unique voice.

For me, coming from Bosnia and Herzegovina is particularly difficult because for our election commission – whenever we have to vote for something as a state – we do not have unique and unified politics on the state level related to this war invasion in Ukraine.

And other commissions, they all can speak with one voice because they have Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the President – the politics of the country is completely clear.

In Bosnia and Herzegovina, this is not the situation, and what we really know is that we want to be a part of this Pan-European Association.

And our opinion is that actually election commissioners should be really independent, and it's not even easy to ask us to make big political decision. We would like to avoid that, if possible, and together only to share our problems, our successes – to share our lessons learned and to assist to each other in the job that we are actually appointed to do.

Fey: That's excellent.

Lennon: Irena, I know we have covered a lot. Is there anything else that you'd like to share?

Hadžiabdić: Well, I actually feel privileged because I am also the part of the International Foundation of Election System, IFES. I am ex-employee of them, and I have to say that international organization that I had the chance to work for – empowered me.

And in my country, I mean, working with election organization actually changed my life and saved my life.

Fey: Wow.

Lennon: That's wonderful, and I don't want to make you any later than we already are. But thank you so much.

Fey: Thank you. Yes. Wonderful.

Lennon: You've been listening to "High Turnout, Wide Margins," a podcast that explores local election administration. I'm your host, Brianna Lennon, alongside Eric Fey.

Thanks to KBIA for making this podcast possible. Our managing editor is Rebecca Smith. Our managing producer is Aaron Hay. And our associate producers are Abigail Ruhman and Katie Quinn. This has been "High Turnout, Wide Margins." Thanks for listening.

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After serving as Assistant Attorney General in the Missouri attorney general's office and as Deputy Director of Elections in the Missouri secretary of state's office, Brianna Lennon made the decision to pursue election administration at the local level. She was elected county clerk in Boone, Missouri, in 2018, making her responsible for conducting elections for more than 120,000 registered voters.
Eric Fey is a lifelong resident of St. Louis County, Missouri, who fell in love with election administration as a teenage poll worker. He has worked in the field for a decade, and became director of elections in 2015. He’s on the executive board of the Missouri Association of County Clerks and Election Authorities, and has observed elections in twelve countries, including Ukraine, Sri Lanka, and Uzbekistan.