Apathy Threatens Key Croatia Poll

Croatia's six-party coalition has signally failed to produce the

Apathy Threatens Key Croatia Poll

Croatia's six-party coalition has signally failed to produce the

Friday, 18 May, 2001

By Dragutin Hedl in Osijek (BCR No. 248, 18-May-01)

Croatia's local election this weekend, May 20, is threatened by voter apathy born of disenchantment with the government's failure to both bring about economic prosperity and crack down on crime.

Even though members of the six-party ruling coalition, which came to power a year and a half ago, do not expect to lose the coming ballot, their leaders are aware of the general apathy that has eroded their support.

"I won't go to the polls because I don't believe it's possible to change anything in this country," said a forty-year-old Zagreb resident, in resigned tones. "When Tudjman's party (the Croatian Democratic Union, HDZ,) lost power, I had high hopes - but nothing worthwhile has actually happened."

The problem has been that the government, frequently riven by conflicting views, has found it hard to agree on an effective reform programme.

The forthcoming local ballot is important because each of the coalition parties are campaigning separately so their relative strengths will be demonstrated by the outcome.

If Prime Minister Ivica Racan's Social Democratic Party, SDP, performs strongly, he will be tempted to call for early elections in the autumn. If the party does not do so well, he will probably opt to whittle down the coalition to just three parties: the SDP, Drazen Budisa's Liberals, HSLS, and the Croatian Peasant Party, HSS, led by the parliamentary president, Zlatko Tomcic.

Judging by the most recent public opinion polls, the SDP could win in 14 out of 20 election districts, including the capital Zagreb, despite the spread of apathy.

Some media analysts, like Mladen Plese of the Zagreb weekly magazine

Nacional, believe the ruling alliance will fall apart after these elections and that Racan will go for a three-party coalition.

This would clearly enable Racan to rule more decisively, as he will be less troubled by internal squabbles. Elements of three-party rule have

already been established, said Plese. He reported in Nacional that Racan, Budisa and Tomcic meet secretly to make important decisions.

Other analysts, like Chris Cviic, an associate of the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London, thinks survival of the six-member

coalition would be the best option for Croatia. But he acknowledges that in the event of the SDP performing extremely well in the poll, Racan would be tempted to go for early parliamentary elections.

Cviic's analysis is probably right, as the alternative - trimming down the ruling alliance without the approval of voters - could pose dangers for Racan.

Whatever the results of this Sunday's poll, Racan will have to do something to win back the trust of the electorate.

Just over 20 per cent of the workforce is unemployed, a high rate even for countries undergoing transition. The government has utterly failed to solve this problem.

In April this year, the number of those entering new jobs was higher than those losing them by a slim margin of 3,000. The government cites this as a sign of impending recovery, but economic experts claim the figures simply show an increased demand for tourist industry workers as summer approaches.

Another big problem is crime, which flourished under the former regime. Although the incoming government promised a war on criminals, it has achieved precious few results. People complain that investigations into how leading tycoons acquired wealth by shady dealings over the last ten years are too slow. Some suspects were detained but released soon afterwards.

Media pundits suggest that the government's failure to both turn round the economy and tackle crime has stemmed from the ruling coalition's inability to make key decisions.

"Such a broad coalition made sense only when we were supposed to beat the HDZ but it turned out to be ineffective in resolving the most pressing problems," a high-ranking official in Racan's party said.

Meanwhile, election apathy stubbornly prevails. NGOs, whose energetic campaigning brought voter turnout up to 78 per cent in recent polls, are this time around not so enthusiastic about getting people to the ballot box.

"People should vote because we know the HDZ has loyal supporters who

always go to the polls and we don't want to help the party win more votes than it should, " said one well-known NGO activist. " This government hasn't perhaps deserved such a punishment, but it's certainly deserved sharp criticism."

Dragutin Hedl is IWPR coordinating editor in Croatia

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