Croatia: HDZ Confident of Revival

Franjo Tudjman's party is hoping to mount a comeback following next month's leadership contest.

Croatia: HDZ Confident of Revival

Franjo Tudjman's party is hoping to mount a comeback following next month's leadership contest.

The party once led by the late president Franjo Tudjman is increasingly confident that it will win the next election, two years after a poll defeat ended its decade-long rule in Croatia.

Voters overwhelmingly rejected the Croatian Democratic Union, HDZ, in January 2000, when a centre-left coalition under Ivica Racan gained power. But now the party is planning a comeback, after choosing a new leader at a convention in April. Whoever wins will want to capitalise on public disappointment with the government's poor economic performance.

The next HDZ leader will aim to reverse an electoral trend in south-east Europe that has seen pro-Western parties defeating nationalists. The main candidates for the post represent the party's moderate and hard line factions.

Ivo Sanader, 48, current HDZ president, claims his efforts to create a mainstream conservative alternative to Racan's five-party coalition are winning support from fellow right-wingers in Western Europe. "We are close to the German Christian Democrats," he said.

Its no idle boast from the former deputy foreign minister who has cultivated close ties with Edmund Stoiber, the Bavarian right-winger who poses a serious threat to Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder in April's German elections.

Sanader says a Stoiber win would give a massive psychological boost to the HDZ. "I am trying to change our nationalist image into a pro-European one," he said.

His main rival, Ivica Pasalic, 41, was Tudjman's controversial former adviser. He heads the HDZ's hard line faction and senses a trend in Europe towards tolerating controversial politicians. "If [Austrian right-winger] Haider and [Italian Prime Minister] Berlusconi are accepted, then so should we," he said.

Published excerpts of recorded conversations made with the late president portray Pasalic as a shadowy figure who played a role in the country's dodgy privatisation schemes. These frequently turned out to be no more than covers for asset-stripping operations, conducted for the benefit of party favourites.

He is blamed for past secret service surveillance of critical journalists, whom he described as "ungrateful for what HDZ achieved during difficult times of war and occupation". This has not diminished Pasalic's standing among radicals in the party's youth section, or in those parts of the country worst affected by the 1991-5 struggle with Yugoslav and Serbian forces. The HDZ held on to power there after the 2000 poll, in coalition with the extreme-right Croatian Party of Rights. "People on a local level are behind me," he claimed.

Pasalic recently said his priority would be to protect the interests of the Bosnian Croats - an indication that he intends to return to Tudjman's discredited policy of interfering in Bosnia's internal affairs. Coming from Herzegovina, in south-west Bosnia, Pasalic revels in his reputation as a nationalist. He openly demands the revision of the 1995 Dayton peace deal on Bosnia, to create a third Croat-run entity.

Such sentiments - if acted on - would infuriate the Western powers, all of whom stand by the 1995 arrangement. Pasalic's backing for HDZ-led rallies in support of war crimes suspects is equally unlikely to win foreign friends.

More than 100,000 gathered last year in Split, in southern Croatia, to hear Sanader proclaim the fugitive war crimes suspect General Mirko Norac "a hero".

Although witnesses claim Norac personally executed civilians in the town of Gospic in 1991, Sanader said he did not regret the remark. Instead, he praised Norac's role, saying, "Heroes remain heroes whatever their other activities."

Pasalic went further, arguing that Norac should be pardoned as part of a process of "national reconciliation".

Pasalic also admits talking to the Hague war crimes suspect General Ante Gotovina several days before he disappeared last July, stirring speculation that he aided Gotovina's escape. Sanader says he has "no opinion" on whether the general should surrender to the Hague Tribunal, yet dismisses UN charges against him as "unacceptable". Nonetheless, he has pledged to fulfill any Hague extradition request, should the HDZ be returned to power.

Political pundits no longer treat that prospect with ridicule. "The HDZ will win the next election," said the outspoken columnist and human rights lobbyist, Ivan Zvonimir Cicak. Though a long-time critic of Tudjman's party, he now believes the population has lost patience with the government.

The next parliamentary elections are scheduled for early 2004. However, a collapse of the ruling coalition could trigger an early poll.

Cicak's prediction echoes the opinion polls. Some HDZ leaders envisage an Argentina-style scenario in which public unrest over public wage cuts and rising food prices forces a change of government.

Both HDZ leadership candidates say they are preparing an economic programme to cut spiralling unemployment, though details remain hazy beyond a round of tax cuts, reduced public spending and an anti-corruption drive.

Sanader concedes the last issue is a weak point for the HDZ, which notoriously allowed its pet tycoons to siphon off huge sums from the state firms sold at knock-down prices. "We made mistakes," he admitted, also acknowledging "a democratic deficit" in the years of HDZ rule, before glancing at a framed portrait of Tudjman, whose ghost still haunts the party.

The HDZ knows it is unlikely to win an outright majority and can only govern if it entices partners away from the Social Democrat, SDP, led coalition. Its best hopes lie among the fractured Drazen Budisa's Social Liberals - the second largest party in the administration - who appear to bear Racan a grudge.

For the moment, though, the HDZ is concentrating fire on President Stipe Mesic rather than Racan. After a recent speech on the 10th anniversary of Croatian independence in which Mesic criticised nationalists, one HDZ assembly member suggested he should be put on trial.

Such outbursts are a sign that change in the HDZ may only be skin-deep. Hrvoje Sarinic, a former HDZ prime minister who left the party in 1998 in

protest against its right-wing direction, says Pasalic is capable politician but is ultimately dangerous. "I don't like to think what will happen if he wins," he said.

Dominic Hipkins is a freelance journalist based in Croatia.

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