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Croatia: Right Poses Serious Electoral Threat

Nationalists' political comeback worries government as elections approach.
By Drago Hedl

Emboldened by the prospect of new right-wing partners and public disillusionment with the government, the main opposition Croatian Democratic Union, HDZ, is likely to run the ruling coalition close in next month's parliamentary elections.


Indeed, one senior government member told IWPR that the November 23 ballot could prove to be a referendum on whether people believed it was time for the HDZ - roundly defeated in the 2000 elections - to take up the reins of power once more.


While the right-wing parties and the left-of-centre governing coalition grouped around the Social Democratic Party, SDP, are currently around neck and neck in the polls - each with around 40 per cent of support - all the signs are that the former will pose a serious challenge to the government in the forthcoming poll.


The HDZ - bolstered by the ruling coalition's disunity and disappointing economic record and predictions of a low voter turnout amongst left-leaning voters - has been waging an unapologetically negative pre-election campaign focusing on the government's shortcomings.


It has also drawn strength from a possible alliance with two small right-wing parties, which would boost its prospects of forming a government.


The governing parties, meanwhile, may struggle to mobilise support for the November ballot, as their handling of the economy, in particular, has been much criticised domestically. Their market reforms have been ineffectual; there's been no concerted attempt to address the massive corruption of the privatisation process; unemployment has barely dropped; and the foreign debt has increased substantially to19 billion US dollars.


The authorities had hoped to keep the population sweet by making progress on the path to European membership, something that between 80 to 90 per cent of the population support. But despite a major diplomatic offensive, accession this decade is looking increasingly unlikely as Britain and the Netherlands are refusing to ratify Croatia's candidate status until it hands over the war crimes fugitive General Ante Gotovina.


Disillusionment with the government is such that studies suggest as many as 35 per sent of the electorate will stay away from the ballot, with by far the biggest group of absentees expected to be left-leaning voters.


And the left, it seems, will not be able to the count on its natural allies the non-governmental sector - fragmented and weakened by funding shortfalls - to counter voter apathy, as it did in the last election when a campaign by activists to boost voter turnout contributed significantly to around 75 per cent of the electorate casting ballots. Subsequent studies revealed this was crucial to the SDP-led block's electoral victory.


"Unfortunately, they [the NGOs] will not be able organise a campaign that would come even close to that of 2000," said the respected analyst Drago Pilsel.


Indeed, there are some suggestions that NGOs are apathetic towards the election. "[They] have a personal dilemma over who to vote for, or whether to vote at all, " said Vesna Terselic, head of the Centre for Peace Studies. "It's not surprising that some are sending a message to the electorate not to go to the polls."


Further undermining the government's prospects is the fact that its members will not contest the election as a coalition, despite the fact that the electoral system favours large political groupings.


The reason for this is two-fold: the ruling coalition members are under strong pressure from their memberships to come up with their own lists of candidates; and relations between the parties have been strained by a number of disputes, with a rift recently appearing between the SDP and the conservative Croatian Peasants' Party over a number of controversial issues, including cooperation neighbouring former Yugoslav states and Croatia's dispute with Slovenia about territorial rights in the Adriatic.


Influential commentator Jelena Lovric said the governing parties are unprepared for the election and could throw it away, while the opposition has taken the initiative and is now "setting the pace".


In contrast the problems besetting the left, the right appears to be growing from strength to strength - having clearly recovered from its crushing defeat in 2000 - and is keen to exploit the government's difficulties.


Confident of maintaining the loyalty of its traditional supporters, the HDZ has been focusing on the failures of the ruling coalition, with the aim of encouraging voter abstention, which it knows will work in its favour, according to political analyst Davor Genero.


At the same time, it has been buoyed by the likelihood of a parliamentary partnership with the Croatian Social-Liberal Party and the Democratic Centre, who recently formed a coalition to fight the forthcoming ballot, after painstaking and lengthy negotiations.


The emergence of the coalition is significant because on their own both these small parties would struggle to pick up the minimum 5 per cent of votes required for parliamentary seats, while together they are likely to not only overcome this problem but possibly help the HDZ form a government.


"If they jointly manage to get over ten per cent of the vote that could be a serious problem for us, because we estimate that the HDZ alone will win some 20 per cent of votes," a senior SDP politician told IWPR.


Against this background, the SDP and its current partners, it seems, will have their work cut out to avert a right-wing electoral victory. "If the first Croatian multi-party elections held in 1990 were against the communists, and the last, in 2000, against the compromised HDZ, then this will be a referendum in which the voters will say if the time is right for the HDZ to return to power, " said the SDP source.


Drago Hedl is a regular Osijek-based IWPR contributor. Anna McTaggart is IWPR's senior operations officer.


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