The ballot is seen as a test of whether Bosnia will move toward integration in the European Union and NATO or shift closer to Russia.
Bosnians vote in divisive election testing potential EU bid
Bosnians were voting on Sunday in a general election that could install a pro-Russian nationalist to a top post and cement the ethnic divisions of a country that faced a brutal war 25 years ago.
The ballot is seen as a test of whether Bosnia will move toward integration in the European Union and NATO or shift closer to Russia and remain entrenched in rivalries stemming from the 1992-95 war.
Some 3.3 million people were eligible to vote for an array of institutions in Bosnia's complex governing system, which was created by a peace accord at the end of a war that killed 100,000 people and left millions homeless.
The country consists of two regional mini-states — one Serb-run and a Muslim-Croat entity — with joint institutions in a central government. Voters are casting ballots for the three-person Bosnian presidency, the Serb president, and the two entities' parliaments and cantonal authorities.
The campaign was marred by divisive rhetoric and allegations of irregularities that fuelled tensions. In a show of widespread popular discontent with Bosnia's politicians, thousands rallied at anti-corruption protests Friday in Sarajevo and in the main Serb city of Banja Luka.
Bosnia's Serbs and Croats want to move closer to their ethnic kin in neighbouring Serbia and Croatia, while the Muslims want to keep Bosnia together. The issue was at the core of the 1990s' war.
The main focus is on the race for Bosnia's three-member presidency, because of the candidacy of hard-line Serb leader Milorad Dodik, who advocates eventual Serb separation from Bosnia. Mr Dodik is a key Balkan ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin and his victory would mean stronger Russian influence.
Mr Dodik is shifting to the race for the Bosnian presidency because of term limits for his current job leading the Bosnian Serb regional mini-state. His ruling coalition hopes to maintain a firm grip on power in the Serb region.
He urged the voters Sunday to elect a "complex and unified" government that will preserve the unity of Republika Srpska, the Serb entity and work to further benefit it.
"Of course I expect a victory, a big victory that will enable for important work to be done for Republika Srpska," he said.
The current Serb member of the federal presidency and a relative moderate, Mladen Ivanic, is also running, backed by an opposition Serb coalition that hopes to undermine Mr Dodik's rule.
Ivanic was also optimistic Sunday.
"I wouldn't run if I didn't believe I could win," he said.
The main ethnic Croatian presidential candidate, Dragan Covic, is also dashing hopes that Bosnia will be strengthened as a multi-ethnic union. Mr Covic seeks the formation of a third government body, a Croat mini-state that would spell further fragmentation for the fragile nation.
Liberal candidates who back a civil society free of ethnic divisions largely have been pushed to the margins. Observers say widespread voter apathy also diminishes chances of an election surprise, despite high unemployment and widespread corruption in the Balkan nation.
"I expect a lot, but I have little hope that something will change," said Dragica Ruzic, a 72 year-old retiree from the Bosnian Serb region.
At the other side of Bosnia's ethnic divide in the capital of Sarajevo, worker Kemal Cengic, 57, said he wished "someone younger wins."
"Anyone really, just not those who have been in power so far," he said. "I don't care who wins, as long as it's someone new. There is great potential here among the young people."