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One thing that caught my eye in the referendum results cited in Wikipedia seemed improbably high at 92.7% for the independence.

The turnout to the referendums was reported as 63.7%, with 92.7% of voters voting in favour of independence (implying that Bosnian Serbs, which made up approximately 34% of the population, largely boycotted the referendum)

When following the linked source and seeing it cite different results, so peculiar as to prompt me asking this question:

Invalid Ballots 5,465
Valid Ballots 1,992,179
Voting "For" 1,986,202 (99.7 percent)
Voting "Against" 5,977 (0.3 percent)

How do you get 99.7% of voters (with 63.7% turnout) to cast the same vote? You can see similar results in areas with non-transparent elections where there is significant doubt that people actually participate in the election. Other than that, you would expect way more divergence in voting results, even after taking Serbian boycott into account.

I would even go so far to ask, is there any solid reason to think that the Bosnian referendum that has triggered the 1992 civil war and ethnic cleansing were not sham but a real thing? What would be the peculiar circumstances as to cause more than half of voters to show up and back an issue with 99.7% of votes? Such result giving enough confidence to claim such voting as invalid by default.

Please note that the main Wikipedia article on the referendum has the same percentage, but all of the "votes cast" numbers are different:

 Yes    2,061,932   99.71%
 No 6,037   0.29%
Valid votes 2,067,969   99.75%
Invalid or blank votes  5,227   0.25%
Total votes 2,073,196   100.00%
Registered voters/turnout   3,253,847   63.72%

There's a 75 thousand voters divergence between the ones cited by the US and Wikipedia.

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    To say that any single event triggered the Bosnian war is misleading propaganda, since it developed out of an escalating political situation over the course of months. People don't even agree on when the war started.
    – phoog
    Jan 9 at 11:36
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    @phoog I agree with you, but The Guardian is doing that in the first place, and picking a highly biased event at that. Nevertheless, I've watered down my claim.
    – alamar
    Jan 9 at 11:44
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    @user103496 And with 97.58% turnout, although apparently some counties had over 100% turnout so take that with a grain of salt
    – xyldke
    Jan 9 at 13:33
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    You know, if you amputated much of the "push" from this question and just asked if 99.7% was credible and what explained it, it wouldn't be half bad. Anyone wondering about that could read the answers and understand what otherwise are somewhat disturbing numbers are reasonable enough in light of a boycott and have historical antecedents. I'd vote to reopen if so, not so much in its current state. Jan 9 at 21:36
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    "I do not for a moment believe you can get 99,7% votes on anything." And that's exactly why this is a push question. You made up your mind before you asked the question that the 99.7% figure can only be explained by vote-rigging, and people's attempts to provide alternate explanations are - by your own admission - only reinforcing your pre-existing bias. You don't seem to be willing to listen to anything that doesn't tell you what you want to hear (i.e. "yes, the vote was a sham").
    – F1Krazy
    Jan 9 at 22:50

4 Answers 4

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If the opponents of the referendum boycot it, such a result is not at all unusual.

It happened in

among many other places and elections.

While some of them may have been questionable, I doubt all of them were a sham. The Polish and Macedonian cases are particularly interesting because the measures were defeated due to missing the required number of total votes. If they were a sham, one would expect them to win.

As phoog pointed out, this was also the strategy employed by opponents of independence, who argued that the constitution required a 2/3 majority for the referendum, which they prevented. The SDS, the major party representing Bosnian Serbs also disagreed with the referendum being held in the first place, arguing that its mere existence violated the constitution of Yugoslavia. This is one of the reasons for the boycott.

Opponents of independence had criticism of the referendum itself, the way it came to be and what it would mean for the country. In that case, they would probably call the referendum a sham (as in illegitimate).

There has, to my knowledge, been no prominent criticism of the results, which you would expect to happen, if there were irregularities.

International observers were also present and reported no major incidences. The report by the OSCE (then CSCE) can be found here and details a fair and open referendum marred by some violent crimes and a government that may have unduly promoted independence instead of advertising the referendum neutrally. Not enough to wholly discredit the result, especially as they show no irregularities with the counting of votes or recording of results.

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  • Even the first one cited had 12 times as much voting for unpopular opinion, with 1.5x smaller turnover. 99.7 is clearly in the range of North Korean voting.
    – alamar
    Jan 9 at 12:54
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    @alamar Northern Ireland in 1973 is closer in numbers and circumstances. In any case, the result of a boycotted election depends as much on the support for the boycott as it does on support for the cause. Opponents of independence might have just been unusually unified in their rejection of the referendum itself.
    – xyldke
    Jan 9 at 13:24
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    Interestingly, there have been allegations of violence being used to intimidate potential voters against independence into not voting. But these allegations were made by supporters of independence, who claimed that Serbian militants would stop Serbs from entering polling places, thereby enforcing the boycott. Independent observers have rejected these claims.
    – xyldke
    Jan 9 at 13:29
  • That's much closer example, thanks @xyldke
    – alamar
    Jan 9 at 14:19
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    And Poland is also interesting because the vote swung sharply the other way without boycott and PiS got voted out in the general elections. Jan 10 at 0:08
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What would be the peculiar circumstances as to cause 99.7% of voters to show up and back an issue?

99.7% of voters didn't show up; 63.7% did. for reference, the 1991 census had found that 31.2% of the population was Serb.

The most likely explanation for the figures is that people who opposed independence realized that they were in the minority and therefore knew that the best way to prevent a result in favor of independence was to refrain from voting, thereby preventing the referendum from achieving the necessary 2/3 turnout figure, which in fact is what happened.

Whether the votes that people had cast were counted accurately is probably relatively unimportant since the referendum was in any event a political tool, having been organized after the EEC (now the EU) had identified the lack of a referendum as a barrier to recognition of an independent Bosnia and Herzegovina. This is also seen in the decision by the EEC and the US to grant recognition despite the referendum failing to meet its criteria for validity. The internal conflict between Bosnian Serb politicians and others over independence had already been going on for some time at that point; the initial request to the EEC had been made without the participation of Serb politicians.

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  • Can you please provide some link regarding failing to meer criteria of validity?
    – alamar
    Jan 9 at 12:27
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In 2013, a referendum was held in the Falkland Islands on whether they should remain a territory of the United Kingdom or be given to Argentina. 99.80% of the votes were in favour of remaining in the UK from a 92% turnout.

In 2002 the population of Gibraltar voted on whether to remain a UK territory or to share sovereignty with Spain. The result was 98.97% against joint sovereignty on a turnout of 87.9%.

So nothing surprising here. Sometimes people agree.

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    Upvoted, but odd that OP would pick this as the answer. While it seems credible enough to achieve full unity on these 2 referendums, the "voter in the street" in Bosnia was unlikely to be unanimous in opinion. While these are examples of non-rigged high % outcomes, the boycott answers are much more relevant to explain the numbers in Bosnia. Jan 9 at 22:39
  • @ItalianPhilosophers4Monica I've mentioned the boycott in the question, though, so any answers based on the boycott weren't adding anything new.
    – alamar
    Mar 8 at 9:37
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I don't think that those numbers are all that weird. Yugoslavia was fracturing at the time with its member states trying to achieve the independance. Lets look at Slovenia, the first state that did so. The results of a referendum are the following:

Choice Votes %

Yes 1,289,369 95.71%

No 57,800 4.29%

Valid votes 1,347,169 98.93%

Invalid or blank votes 14,569 1.07%

Total votes 1,361,738 100.00%

Registered voters/turnout 1,499,294 90.83%

So, more than 90% turnout with more than 95% for independance (that IS impressive result!). And Slovenia was the first, so nobody knew what the consequences of trying to leave Yugoslavia will be, or how the central government would react to such referendum, so with a positive example (which Bosnia had in the form of Slovenia) numbers could be higher.

So in Bosnia the circumstances for huge % of positive votes were perfect. Opponents boycotted the referendum (that should be obvious when you check the percentage of people not voting and percentage of Serbs, who were against independance). They had an example of successful process of gaining independance in the form of Slovenia. And Yugoslavia was already exhausting itself in the war to prevent Croatia gaining independance. So population wanting to leave Yugoslavia thought the time was ripe for their attempt.

So the results are not so far fetched. Opponents refused to vote. And supporters were highly motivated to vote (the whole Yugoslavia was seem to be falling apart). There were not many countries with population as divided as Bosnia was at the time.

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  • I wonder if they were understanding that they're voting in a civil war. Still, even in Slovenia (which is mostly monoethnic) there were 15 times as much people voting "Against". Bosnia has significant amount of population mixing which should have been reflected by any kind of voting.
    – alamar
    Jan 9 at 14:21
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    @alamar In Slovenia, the people against independence were not boycotting the referendum.
    – xyldke
    Jan 9 at 15:31

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