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Bosnians queue in crucial poll

A Bosnian walks past a campaign poster in downtown Sarajevo

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• Timeline: The Milosevic years 
• Election Watch: Bosnia Europe
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Saturday's election is for Bosnia's three-person presidency and members of parliaments in Bosnia and its 2 autonomous entities -- the Muslim-Croat Federation and the Serb Republika Srpska

Members of the presidency rotate office every 8 months

The member with the most votes is chairman of the presidency

Bosnia's parliament consists of the House of Representatives and the House of Peoples

The House of Representatives has 28 members elected from the  Federation and 14 from Republika Srpska

The House of Peoples has 10 members appointed by the Federation parliament and 5 by the Republika Srpska parliament

This is the first time since the 1995 Dayton peace accord created Bosnia that officials will be elected for 4-year terms; previous elections were for 2-year mandates.

SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina -- Bosnians have voted in polls widely seen as their final opportunity to put the 1992-95 war behind them and embrace a multi-ethnic future within Europe.

Muslims, Serbs and Croats began filing into polling stations at dawn on Saturday in the capital Sarajevo, whose siege by Serb forces epitomised the war that set neighbour against neighbour and left open wounds among the ethnic groups.

Queues were so long that some stations remained open beyond the 7 p.m. deadline.

Voting appeared to go smoothly and could signal the country can run elections unsupervised and act as a step towards closer relations with Europe.

The only problem seemed to arise when 10,000 names failed to appear on voting lists, observers said.

European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana wrote in an open letter to the Bosnian people: "One alternative for Bosnia-Herzegovina is Europe... It is about creating a better life for all (of the country's) citizens."

"The other is stagnation. I do not need to spell out what that alternative will mean in detail: You have experienced most of it during the years that followed immediately after the war."

Preliminary results were expected Sunday with official results coming on October 22. Forming a ruling coalition could take several more weeks.

For most Bosnians, the immediate issue is money. Unemployment is 60 percent in the most impoverished areas, and the average monthly salary is equivalent to $250.

The polls are the first in Bosnia to be run without Western help and will determine if reformists can sustain or improve a delicate balance of power that let them eject the big nationalist parties from power at the state level after the last elections in 2000, Reuters news agency reported.

Such a move is seen as vital as nationalists, particularly Serbs, have scotched efforts to forge strong common institutions and a single economic space needed to attract trade and investment, and qualify Bosnia for talks to join the European Union.

The international community, which runs much of Bosnia behind the scenes and has injected about $5 billion since the guns fell silent, expects Bosnia increasingly to stand alone.

Danish Foreign Minister Per Stig Moller has also urged Bosnian voters to "choose the road towards political stability and further integration" into the international community.

"Nothing can change the tragic sufferings of the past, but the time has come once and for all to put them behind. One cannot vote on the past, but one can vote for the future," he wrote in a statement. Denmark holds the rotating EU presidency.

The Social Democrats, Bosnia's biggest party, reaches out to all ethnic groups. The party holds its final rally on Thursday, along with the moderate Party for Bosnia and Herzegovina, which is mainly Muslim.

Both groups' message is that Western market reforms offer Bosnia's best hope for lasting peace and stability.

By contrast, the Party of Democratic Action -- the main nationalist Muslim party -- held a rally Wednesday night at a sports hall packed with supporters waving green Islamic flags and chanting "Allahu Akbar" (God is great).

Speakers said the country was in a fight for survival and prayed for the victims of the siege of Sarajevo in the early 1990s and the 1995 Srebrenica massacre.

The Croatian Democratic Union -- the main nationalist party for the smallest of Bosnia's main ethnic groups -- has widespread support among Croats for its staunchly hardline ticket.

And the Serb Democratic Party -- founded by war crimes fugitive Radovan Karadzic -- have calledl for a fierce defence of Serb national interests. Publicly, the party is distancing itself from Karadzic.

Those elected will rule for four years rather than two in previous elections, a key extension intended to help them kick-start the economy and make government work.

Many Bosnians are disillusioned, saying their lives have not improved despite the promises made by the string of leaders elected in the five elections already held since the end of the war.

Voters will choose deputies for the state parliament and the parliaments of the Serb and Muslim-Croat halves into which Bosnia was cut when the 1995 Dayton accords ended the war.

They will also pick three multi-ethnic state presidency members, a Serb Republic president and assemblies for 10 cantons in the Muslim-Croat federation cantons.

None of the country's three presidents is running for re-election, though two -- Bosnian Croat Jozo Krizanovic and Bosnian Muslim Beriz Belkic -- are running for the national parliament.

About 2.3 million registered voters at more than 4,000 polling stations face a bewildering choice among 57 political parties and more than 7,500 candidates at various levels.

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