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

Croatia: HDZ Reformer Hamstrung by Old Guard

The new moderate leader of the opposition HDZ party may find his hands tied by old guard nationalists as he tries to cast off Tudjman's authoritarian legacy.
By Jelena Lovric

The election of Ivo Sanader to lead the former ruling Croatian Democratic Union, HDZ, is a victory for the party's moderate wing, but the ballot revealed deep internal divisions that may ultimately thwart his reformist ambitions.

At the Zagreb convention earlier this month, the HDZ's ranks were almost equally divided between ultra-nationalists who revere the autocratic legacy of former Croatian president Franjo Tudjman and those seeking a more democratic conservative agenda.

During the leadership contest Sanader's rival Ivic Pasalic, an adviser to Tudjman associated with some of the darker aspects of the late HDZ leader's years in power, repeatedly advocated the return to a more authoritarian regime.

In contrast, Sanader pointed to other European conservative parties as his model.

The slim margin of Sanader's victory means he will continue to feel the breath of party hawks on the back of his neck as he presses forward with a programme of transforming HDZ from what is currently a heterogeneous movement to a modern democratic right-leaning party.

And, if the country's main opposition party is to have any real chance of power again, he must also spend time seeking a suitable coalition partner in time for the next general election expected in 2004.

Following his victory Sanader made clear that he plans to marginalise the "defeated" factions of the party but he has already been forced to enter some unexpected alliances with notorious party hardliners, such as Branimir Glavas.

It is the sheer numbers of nationalists, both at grassroots and party leadership level, that may ultimately tell against him with internal animosity and squabbling likely to continue and, in a worst case scenario, lead to deadlock.

An impasse would see Sanader nominally in charge but unable to effect change and Pasalic's faction unable to rule but blocking any reforms.

Such internal strife would be bad not only for the party but for the country as a whole, preventing the HDZ from becoming the serious opposition and alternative to the governing coalition that is badly needed if Croatia is to be a truly functioning democracy.

Currently, prime minister Ivica Racan and his left-leaning coalition government benefit disproportionally from public fears of a return to a Tudjman-style regime as opposed to winning or losing on their own merits.

Realistically, if the HDZ is to present a serious challenge it must distance itself from the Tudjman era as well as highlighting the failures of the current government.

Sanader can already be seen to be adopting this tactic, offering an apology during a recent parliamentary speech to all those "who suffered during HDZ rule".

Tudjman was elected the first president of the newly created state of Croatia in 1990 and until his death in 1999 ran a nationalist and authoritarian regime closely controlling the media and allegedly manipulating the electoral process.

In 2000, the HDZ was decisively defeated in parliamentary elections having won every ballot in the preceding decade.

If the party is now to return to power, it is unlikely to do so alone and thus one of the most urgent tasks facing the newly elected leader is finding a suitable coalition partner. Not one serious party is currently expressing such a wish.

The HDZ is most likely to try and get close to centre parties such as the Croatian Social Liberal Party and Croatian Peasant Party to try and persuade them to leave the ruling coalition led by Racan's Social Democratic Party, SDP.

The HDZ may also work to isolate the SDP and try to bring about the disintegration of the government. Indeed, it often warns of the danger of communism and accuses the left-oriented Racan administration of wanting a return to the old Yugoslav regime.

The election of Sanader gives the HDZ a better chance for the party to normalise and provide a better choice for the people at the ballot box.

And, if his reforming zeal prevails, Tudjman's heirs could assist the country's democratic development - something they have not managed so far.

Jelena Lovric is a columnist with the Rijeka daily, Novi List