Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Croatia Faces Constitutional Crisis

Recent up-beat reports on the president's health have been greeted with scepticism within Croatia, where observers fear the ruling party will stop at nothing to retain their hold on political power.
By Drago Hedl

Senior officials from Croatia's ruling Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) have made astonishing claims over the past week regarding the health of the ailing president. The latest statements claim the hospital-bound Franjo Tudjman is recovering and could now make the formal announcement of parliamentary elections within days.


But conflicting reports from unofficial but reliable medical sources suggest that the president is unconscious and on a life-support machine.


Ivan Pasalic, Tudjman's powerful internal policy advisor, told the BBC that "he did not expect that the president would be able to carry out his mandate," adding "the president was not able to carry out his duties for several days". These comments coincided with reports that Tudjman's condition was stabilising, prompting Pasalic to deny the his statements to the British media, claiming he was quoted "out of context".


Tudjman's illness has come at a most inconvenient time for the HDZ, upsetting all their electoral plans. Several weeks ago Tudjman announced parliamentary elections were planned for December 22, but he did not officially call the elections. The scheduled date, coming as it does in the week before Christmas, provoked a series of public protests.


But the proposed date is opportune for the HDZ, Tudjman's ruling party, which has seen its popularity slipping in the last year. In a poll of 4,000, published on November 19 and conducted by PULS and the US International Republican Institute, the main opposition coalition scored 35 per cent to the HDZ's 24 per cent, an 11 per cent edge. The Croatian diaspora, traditional supporters of the nationalist HDZ, regularly return to Croatia for the Christmas holiday. Furthermore some opposition politicians argue that opportunities for electoral fraud will be better during the festive holiday period.


The president's poor health has, however, sabotaged the HDZ's plans. Many observers are deeply suspicious of claims that Tudjman's condition is improving and view the latest claims by the HDZ as little more than a transparent attempt to manipulate the political calendar.


November 20 is the last possible date on which elections can be announced to meet the December 22 target. Constitutional time limits allow for elections to be held up to January 27, 2000, but the HDZ is desperate to schedule the ballot before Christmas.


Until Tudjman himself appears on television, even from his hospital bed, to demonstrate that he is conscious and sufficiently well to carry out his duties, the public and opposition politicians will remain very sceptical of official announcements from the HDZ.


Pressure is mounting on Prime Minister Zlatko Matesa to request a judgement from the Constitutional Court on whether Tudjman is fit to carry out his presidential functions.


On November 17 Matesa visited Tudjman in hospital and spoke with the medical team. On leaving the hospital he confirmed he had seen the president but refused to comment on Tudjman's condition or whether they had exchanged any words. Matesa immediately left for the Istanbul summit of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, thereby delaying any referral to the Constitutional Court.


Should the Constitutional Court deem Tudjman too ill to carry out his presidential duties, or if the president dies, then the speaker of the Croatian Parliament, Vlatko Pavletic, would assume the duties until a new president is elected.


This implies two things in practice: under the terms of the Constitution, Speaker Pavletic would not have an opportunity to succeed Tudjman. More significantly, manipulation over the condition of the president will probably continue, to ensure that Tudjman is in a position to call the elections in time. Otherwise, the party will lose the chance to hold the elections on its much-preferred date.


Adding to the confused situation was the decision by the HDZ November 12 to withdraw a proposal calling for the early dissolution of the Croatian Parliament. The HDZ said Tudjman's medical condition had prompted the change of mind, arguing it would be irresponsible to leave the country without a Parliament when the President was in such poor health.


Some observers fear, however, that the motives are quite different. According to the Constitution, should Tudjman die or be deemed unable to continue in office, presidential elections must be held within 60 days. At present the HDZ enjoys a two-thirds majority in Parliament, allowing it to pass constitutional changes unopposed. Critics warn that the HDZ plans to change constitutional provisions for the election of the head of state - replacing the need for a general election with an election by parliament. This would enable the HDZ to chose a new president from within its own ranks.


Without a public appearance by Tudjman, the HDZ stands little hope of convincing people at large that any decision by the president to confirm the elections on December 22 is genuine. This would in turn further undermine their chances of retaining a majority. Thus without elections on December 22 the likelihood of a constitutional and political crisis in Croatia seems almost inevitable as the HDZ twists and turns in its efforts to hold on to power.


Drago Hedl, a long-time contributor to IWPR, is a senior independent journalist and editor in Croatia and contributor to Feral Tribune.