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HDZ Hegemony Under Threat
Extremist Croats are fighting desperately to retain their iron grip on western Herzegovina, the rocky, snake-infested corner of Bosnia they have ruled since the break-up of Yugoslavia.
For the first time, opposition parties campaigning for Saturday's general election are showing signs of making headway against the extremist Croatian Democratic Union party of Bosnia and Herzegovina, HDZBiH, which for most of the past decade has appeared unassailable.
Since the Bosnian war ended with the Dayton accord of 1995, other territories under Croat control in Bosnia, mostly in central and northern parts of the country, have become more moderate. In Herzegovina, the HDZ maintained its hard-line opposition against rapprochement with other communities.
Now, for the first time since the war, the HDZ is facing public criticism inside its own stronghold. Opposition parties in Herzegovina have accused the party leadership of mishandling political and economic affairs.
The loudest criticism comes from a recently formed independent list of candidates calling themselves "Through Work to Prosperity". Their leader Mladen Ivankovic is co-owner of one of Bosnia's most successful private firms, the big "Lijanovic" meat company in Siroki Brijeg.
Ivankovic and his followers, mostly prominent business people from this region, claim HDZ policies prevent their businesses from expanding into new markets.
Smaller private businessmen in Herzegovina are also showing dissatisfaction with controversial legal procedures which are used to gain commercial privileges for the HDZ leadership.
"Those who associate with HDZBiH enjoy tax rebates which allow them to amass considerable wealth. Those of us who live from our work and who do not agree with HDZ, have to pay enormous taxes and end up earning next to nothing," said Ante Soldo, a small businessman from Siroki Brijeg.
Local polls show that "Through Work to Prosperity" candidates could gain nearly one third of the seats in the parliament of the western Herzegovina canton. Such a result could end the hegemony of HDZ.
At the same time, Zlatko Lagumdzija's Social Democrats, SDPBiH, have started to establish a strong presence in western Herzegovina. Its candidates are running for the first time for seats in the parliament of the Muslim-Croat Federation, one of the two regions of Bosnia set up by the Dayton agreement. SPD candidates are also contesting seats in the Bosnia state parliament.
A recent visit to western Herzegovina by Lagumdzija created a more democratic atmosphere in the territory. The visit could be a profitable political investment for future elections, but in Saturday's poll the SDP expectations in western Herzegovina are not unduly high.
However, if leading opposition parties should unite to include the SDP, the New Croatian Initiative, NHI, and the Croatian Peasant Party, HSS, alongside the Independent list, they could create a serious problem for the HDZ. To counter this, HDZ might link up with the rightwing Croatian Rights Party, HSPBiH, to preserve a majority in western Herzegovina.
In other territories under Croatian control, especially in central and northern Bosnia where HDZ rule is even more uncertain, the polls indicate a rise in support for moderate Croatian parties. These parties, the NHI, the HSS and the main opposition SDP, are expected to score good results in these areas.
The NHI also presented itself to the Croatian electorate in Republika Srpska, the other region of Bosnia, and was well received by Croatian refugees. This group comprises more than 100,000 voters who might have a decisive influence on the results.
It is believed that Croatian refugees from Republika Srpska who hope to return to their pre-war homes, will mostly vote NHI. This Croatian electorate is disappointed with HDZBiH politics, and it recognises in NHI a party which might further their aspirations.
Until recently, HDZ could count on full support from an absolute majority of Croats in Herzegovina. At local elections in April this year, HDZ gained an outright majority in Herzegovina, but saw its turnout fall for the first time to 40 percent of registered voters. Such a poor showing clearly indicated growing unhappiness with the party's policies.
Regardless of election results in western Herzegovina, a turnout of 40 percent would give the HDZ only a small chance keeping its monopoly among Croats in the federal and state institutions. Clearly worried by these events, the party embarked a month ago on a ferocious election campaign which bordered on illegality.
The speeches of the HDZ leadership, especially those of HDZ president Ante Jelavic, brimmed with nationalist vitriol calculated to raise ethnic tensions as well as conflict with the international community.
In recent days, Jelavic declared that the federation between Muslims and Croats was "dead". The HDZ also said it does not acknowledge the authority of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, OSCE.
The party followed this up by calling for a referendum among Bosnian Croats on the same day as the elections. Although the question of secession for Bosnian Croats was not directly formulated, it is believed the HDZ planned to declare void any unfavourable election results and seek to establish a third independent region in Bosnia.
The call for a referendum breaks Bosnian election laws in many ways. According to the Bosnian Constitution, a referendum can only be called by state institutions, not political parties. Nevertheless the HDZ move could affect the election results.
Several international officials have said off-the-record that the HDZ would be drastically punished for such behaviour - but not until the elections are over. The international community wants to avoid pre-election conflict with the party because such friction could raise tension and improve its electoral chances.
Jurica Bosnjak is a pseudonym for a Bosnian journalist.
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