In Gradiska, a normally quiet Bosnian border town, Sunday’s elections have caused exceptional traffic congestion. The campaign truck for Milorad Dodik, the ethnic Serb leader, calls for the “peaceful dissolution” of Bosnia-Herzegovina as its driver eases round the sharp corners of the town’s roads.

Yet Mr Dodik’s calls for breaking up the Balkan country, along with Bosniak calls to stamp out Serb autonomy, have started to appear routine.

“The words are aggressive, but they’re the same as four years ago [at the previous elections],” says Djordje Bilbija, a Bosnian Serb information technology graduate.

Most people Mr Bilbija knows will re-elect Mr Dodik’s Union of Independent Social Democrats (SNSD), the country’s main Serb party, without any question. “He created jobs, and people are afraid of losing those jobs by voting for someone else,” he says.

Mr Dodik is prime minister of Republika Srpska, one of two “entities” left intact under the US-brokered Dayton peace treaty in 1995. The other is the Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina, consisting of 10 Muslim and Croat-dominated cantons.

Bosniaks, as Bosnian Muslims are now known, hoped that ethnic divisions would diminish. Yet since the last general election the Serb leader has concentrated his power, kept his entity’s finances comparatively stable and turned his administrative centre, Banja Luka, into the ready-made capital for an eventual independent state.

Indeed, the topics of discussion ahead of the poll – including turning the jagged inter-entity boundary into an international border – are “pretty dangerous”, says Kurt Bassuener, senior associate at the Democratization Policy Council, a think-tank.

Without a breakthrough on constitutional reform, which would persuade Serbs to accept a more centralised state, Bosnia could unravel within a few years, he says. Another big challenge is the economy, which is stagnating, with high unemployment and little foreign-direct investment since the global economic crisis.

Mr Dodik’s campaign slogan, “Srpska for ever”, spells out the Serbs’ essential cause since the 1992-1995 Bosnian war. “It means exactly what it says: the Serb republic is a permanent thing,” Mr Dodik told the Financial Times.

“Bosnia-Herzegovina has proved to be an impossible state. And if it can’t function under the terms of the Dayton peace treaty, then we [Serbs] will pursue our own strategy.”

“Bosnia-Herzegovina is a joke,” says a man at a Dodik rally in the Banja Luka basketball hall. “In 15 years, we’ll be with Serbia, [Croat-dominated parts of] Hercegovina with Croatia, and the Muslims will have their own state.”

Before the last elections, western diplomats lauded Mr Dodik as an economic reformer and political moderate, especially when he accepted a degree of centralisation under a US-brokered constitutional package. But Haris Silajdzic, a hardline Bosniak leader, rejected any preservation of the Serb wartime entity.

Bosniak voters see the Serb mini-state as a reward for genocide, including the massacre by Serb forces of about 8,000 Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica in Europe’s worst single atrocity since the second world war.

Serbs also had misgivings about the April 2006 deal. “If Silajdzic had been for it, we had a plan to reject it,” Mr Dodik now says.

Mr Silajdzic holds the Bosniak slot in the three-man rotating presidency. His Bosniak opponents blame him for boosting Serb resistance.

“I hope voters understand, the rigid attitude of Haris Silajdzic created space for Dodik to become what he has,” said Bakir Izetbegovic, presidential candidate from the Party for Democratic Action (SDA), a more moderate Bosniak party.

A political shake-up is essential if the country is to avoid another four years of stagnation, says Zlatko Lagumdzija, leader of the Social Democrats, the only main party that strives to be multi-ethnic.

“Even small mathematical changes . . . could produce a major result,” breaking the stranglehold of ethnic hardliners.

Valentin Inzko, the international peace overseer and European Union envoy, has urged citizens to vote for more forward-looking leaders.

International Crisis Group, the Brussels-based conflict-prevention body, regards financial reform in the inefficient Muslim-Croat Federation as critical to keeping the state intact.

Mr Dodik partly agrees. His entity, although now depending on savings from pre-crisis privatisations, has met obligations to the International Monetary Fund. In contrast, the Federation hovers on the brink of bankruptcy and has failed to make budget cuts, say IMF officials.

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