By Daria Sito-Sucic
MOSTAR, Bosnia (Reuters) - The historic Bosnian town of Mostar, a gem of 15th century Ottoman architecture, has not held an election since 2008. On Sunday it has a chance to shake off years of political paralysis.
Despite drawing millions of tourists, the town is suffocating under uncollected garbage and it still bears the scars of war from the 1990s: local echoes of a similar dysfunction at the national level in Bosnia.
The town of around 100,000 has not held an election for 12 years because its Catholic Croats and Muslim Bosniaks were unable to agree on electoral rules, a row that illustrates the ethnic tensions that brought war to Bosnia three decades ago.
But the dispute has been settled, thanks to a 2019 court ruling won by Irma Baralija, a philosophy teacher who filed a suit against the Bosnian government at the European human rights court for failing to hold elections in Mostar.
"They just stole all those years of democracy from us," said Baralija, a Bosniak who is standing for the multi-ethnic Our Party in Sunday's city government election.
"We simply must take a step forward to the future, we cannot live in the past anymore."
Twenty-five years since war ended, Bosnia faces a choice, analysts say: either it reforms and moves on from ethnic politicking towards European Union integration, or it falls deeper into decay and stagnation.
In Mostar, voters face the same question, with potential new leaders such as Baralija campaigning on bread-and-butter issues rather than on the ethnic agenda that has bogged down Bosnia for 25 years.
Political experts expect multi-ethnic parties to win some councillors, although perhaps not enough to seriously damage the two-party nationalist majority. But new members will at least be able to challenge council decisions.
Croats outnumber Bosniaks in Mostar by less than 5%, but people from both groups are leaving the town because its economy has been ruined by mismanagement.
The Croatian HDZ party and the Bosniak SDA argued for years over electoral boundaries, until the court decision forced them to accept a proposal almost unchanged from a decade ago.
During that time, the HDZ and SDA, which share power nationally in Bosnia's autonomous Bosniak-Croat Federation, have drafted the Mostar budget together and it had been approved each year by the region's parliament. Citizens say money was spent without rigorous controls or transparency.
"What we have seen in Mostar in the past 12 years was lawlessness and anarchy ... with only two men running the town," said Slaven Raguz, head of the opposition Croatian Republican Party (HRS).
"Mostar has become a paradigm of Bosnia, in which ruling elites have tailored society according to their needs, living off taxpayers' money and not showing any responsibility towards the people they are supposed to represent," Raguz said.
The acting mayor declined to comment and the finance minister did not immediately answer telephone calls and emails from Reuters. Mostar's young people, facing Europe's highest rate of youth unemployment of 40.2% and a society marred by ethnic rivalries and corruption, will be voting for the first time in their town.
"It means a change, we'll finally have a city council so something should be happening," said Zvonimir Bioksic, 22, a Croat student of mechanical engineering, while taking a stroll in the town centre with his Bosniak friend Djani Fejzic.
The two young men defy prejudices about Mostar's divisions.
"Why would the town, which has so many bridges, be a synonym for divisions," Fejzic asked. "I am all for connecting."
Marin Bago, an activist who will run on a list of independent candidates called "The Right to the Town", says Mostar has been divided only in peoples' minds.
"The deepest emotion in Bosnia is fear, remaining from the war," Bago said, pointing to ruins that date from the fighting that began in 1992.
"We are looking at them for 28 years, it is frustrating because there is no reason nor excuse to watch the ruins for 28 years."
(Reporting by Daria Sito-Sucic; Editing by Giles Elgood)