Before Mirsad Hadzikadic left UNC Charlotte to campaign across the globe for his home country’s presidency, he said that, regardless if he won or lost, he hoped to change mindsets.
Fast forward to Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Election Day on Oct. 7, the computer science professor was with his group of campaign volunteers when the central electoral commission accidentally released votes early. Over the past five months, the independent candidate was relatively unknown, significantly underfunded and up against popular politicians with deep pockets, but now he was ahead of the competition.
“Whether it was a sign of how much [votes were] stolen or something, I don’t really know, but that gave them hope,” he said Monday at a public discussion in UNC Charlotte’s Center City building.
As the evening went on, however, it became apparent he would not win. His team was crushed.
But the next day, Oct. 7, they awoke to newspapers and analyst talking about the 50,000 votes Hadzikadic had received as an “incredible story.” He finished in fourth place with 9.5% of the vote in the six-person race.
On the third day, Oct. 8, he says it was “euphoria.”
“Wow, look at this,” he said, describing the moment. “We’ve done this. We are changing Bosnia. So, what do we do now?”
Getting in on the run
Hadzikadic left his Yugoslavia home in 1984 at 29-years-old to come to the U.S. as a Fulbright Scholar at Southern Methodist University. He has spent more than three decades at UNC Charlotte, working his way up to executive director of the university’s Data Science Initiative.
But when a friend called him last fall from Bosnia and Herzegovina to propose he run for president, Hadzikadic felt an overwhelming sense of duty. Despite concerns about his safety, the burden it would put on his family and the pay cut he’d take if he won, Hadzikadic went through with it.
The Guardian referred to Bosnia and Herzegovina as “home to what is most probably the world’s most complicated system of government.” A peace agreement after the Bosnian War included plans for how the country would run. Three presidents — one Bosniak, one Croat and one Serb — rotate out as chairman every eight months over a four-year term.
Following the war, which ended in 1995, the country became divided along social, religious and cultural lines. Hadzikadic predicts nationalists will be successful in efforts to separate the country within seven to 10.
“That was [my friend’s] fear: if we let the nationalists win this election, they will drive the country into the ruins,” Hadzikadic told the Niner Times in April.
Hadzikadic ran his campaign on three focuses: “Bosnia First,” economy and youth.
His overall goal was to end national policies that distinguish people as Croats and Serbs and instead view citizens as “Bosnians who live in Bosnia” before anything else. “Bosnia First” stresses people to think of the country as a whole rather than what would benefit one’s party or own well being.
“Think about the country first,” he said. “Like John Kennedy, right? ‘Ask not.'”
His plan to boost the economy included enforcing laws, getting investments from overseas and creating tax incentives for new companies.
His third focus was reflected in his campaign team; every member was under the age of 40. Hadzikadic says 70,000 Bosnians have left the country since the beginning of the year, most to Germany, due to a lack of jobs and the overall state of the country. He said his campaign made an impact on the youth more than any other population.
Two days before the election, he was walking to a meeting at Hotel Europe when he was stopped by a young man on the street. The man thanked Hadzikadic for bringing hope to the youth. When Hadzikadic asked for his name and what he did, the young man responded that he was in musical academy.
“I said, ‘What are you going to do when you’re done?'” Hadzikadic recalls. “Then he turned to me and he said, ‘Well that, Mr. President,’ he said, ‘that depends on you.'”
First on the agenda
However, what Hadzikadic would have done first has little to do with his three-part plan.
It became first on the agenda for him when he spent three days participating in the country’s Peace March, an annual event in July that commemorates victims of the 1995 Srebrenica genocide by hiking the way people took to escape Serb persecution. It concludes on the third day with a mass funeral to bury remains that have been found in the past year.
On his hike, Hadzikadic stayed at the homes of volunteer hosts. On night one, he entered a couple’s house. As he sat waiting for the husband to prepare a cup of tea, the wife put her hand on Hadzikadic’s knee. “Did you see the creek by the house? It saved our lives,” she said, going on to explain how they hid while their neighbors were raped for days and had their necks slit. Ten minutes later, she asked again, “Did you see the creek by the house?”
And again. And again.
“She lives through it every 10, 15, 20 minutes,” Hadzikadic said. “Cannot create new memories to erase the old ones.”
He met other people throughout the journey who had lost multiple family members, so when he attended the mass funeral, it struck him that politicians entered the first 20 rows for prayer while the people who lost loved ones stood in the hills. He decided then the first order he’d make as member of presidency would be not allowing politicians to enter the first 20 rows of prayers for the mass funeral.
“It would do nothing for the country, but it would raise hopes of so many people,” he said. “It’s time for a different value system.”
Unknown and underfunded
Hadzikadic had trustworthiness behind him, but money became an obstacle. Without the funds for a professional campaign manager, he relied on volunteers.
“We realize at some point that it is all about money,” he said. “In the end, you have no money, you cannot get to people.”
Few citizens knew him due to a lack of exposure. In addition to not being able to afford TV time, Bosnian public service media are owned by parties who blocked him from the channels.
Then, one day someone told him what he had to do: “Shock the nation,” so people would talk about him “whether they like it or not.”
The opportunity came at two candidate debates. During one, he was put up against two of his opponents (three did not show up) and they were all asked if they believed in same-sex marriage.
“In Bosnia, that’s a death sentence,” he said at Monday’s lecture.
The first candidate answered no. The second also said no. Then, when they got to Hadzikadic, he answered yes. His response dominated media coverage for weeks to come.
At another debate, the 15 candidates were divided depending on whether they were considered a major or lesser contender. Put into the lesser category, Hadzikadic disagreed with the message it sent to the public, that these were the opponents they shouldn’t bother to vote for.
So when he was asked to introduce himself as a first question, Hadzikadic used his 60 seconds to explain why he disagreed with that system. Then, even as he was being cut off, he used 20 more. At 80 seconds, he walked out.
“They call now, in Bosnia, ’80 seconds that changed the politics,'” he said.
“Scandal in the studio” ran as a headline.
Despite his efforts though, he was beat in the Bosnian position by a nationalist. A nationalist also won the Serb seat. The third presidential council seat went to a moderate Croat.
But Hadzikadic is not letting the loss be the end. It’s been less than a month since Election Day and he already has an answer to the question “What’s next?”
A movement for political cohesiveness.
People can register online to become members of the movements, also called “Sparks,” a play on his campaign slogan, “Be a spark of change.” During his campaign, people would message him saying, “I’m a spark, too.” When someone registers, they receive an email telling them which number “Spark” they are.
As of Monday, there were over two thousand people signed up to be “Sparks” of change.
“Finally I have a cause or something I believe in deeply that I want to think about it 24 hours a day, which is how to improve the lives of people, society,” he said.
Before Hadzikadic left Charlotte for Bosnia and Herzegovina, he said that, regardless of if he won or lost, he hoped to change mindsets.
And regardless that he lost, he is doing just that.