The Struggle for Independents – Snapshots from the US and Bosnia

Reading the article, “Democrats Aim to Revive a Campaign Finance Watchdog,” brings to mind similar dynamics over ongoing election law drama in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), and on both sides of the Atlantic we see the impact of the phenomenon of partisan politics as tribe, divorced from notions of accountability or independent thinking and expertise.

In the US, for years the Federal Elections Commission (FEC), with three Democratic and three Republican commissioners, has been dysfunctional, as Commissioner appointments have reflected the broader trends of increasingly radicalized party perspectives.

The gridlock became worse after the Citizens United ruling put the need for campaign finance reform on the agenda, and it was clear that Republicans were uninterested in any FEC enforcement role that might mitigate the damage of money in politics through requiring greater transparency and disclosure.

Today, legislative work by Democratic politicians to strengthen voting rights and access include reform of the FEC, including restructuring to have two Democratic, two Republican and one Independent commissioner; an odd number of members would prevent the current 3-3 gridlock that has become sadly common.

Republican critics doubt that someone could really be “independent,” claiming the potential for this member to be a “partisan in disguise.”

This reading suggests a worldview in which no commissioner – perhaps no public servant? – can ever be more than a representative of a tribe; suggesting an acceptance that independent thinking in Washington is dead.

Balkanistas might hear echoes of similar tribal politics related to elections and election reform in BiH.

In 2009, the European Court of Human Rights issued a decision in a case filed by Jakob Finci (of the BiH Jewish community) and Dervo Sejdić (of the BiH Roma community), finding that the country’s three-person state presidency, constitutionally limited to one Bosniak, 1 Croat and 1 Serb, discriminates against, well, anyone else – what the BiH constitution refers to as “Others.”

BiH remains required to amend its constitution in lines with its obligations as a member of the Council of Europe.

It has failed to do so because of the politics involved. The easiest solution, one might think, would be to find a way to add a seat for “others.” However, just as there is no trust in the US that the Independent Commissioner would not “really” be a shill for one side, so is this seen in BiH.

Never mind the possible dynamics if a Roma or Jew won the seat…What if the “other” were an Orthodox Montenegrin, then he would be a “Serb in disguise.” Unless of course he were a Bosniak Montenegrin, in which case he would be a “Bosniak in disguise.” Or, what about a Bosnian Ukrainian who was a practicing Catholic won – would he be a “Croat in disguise”?

Such are the questions that arise when there is no elite or popular faith that anyone can ever think beyond their rigidly ascribed, presumed, simplistic tribal label. And it’s a recipe for dysfunction everywhere, reminding that engineering election laws and election districts to put tribal membership above accountability and constituent services, are tailor made to generate polarized politics and societies, everywhere.