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Mesic Faces No Rival in Presidential Poll

Bolstered by reputation for simplicity, popular septuagenarian looks likely to romp home in leadership ballot.
By Drago Hedl

Croatian president Stipe Mesic, who turns 70 next month, will almost certainly be re-elected for a second five-year term, in presidential elections likely to take place in early January, according to opinion polls.

If the elections had been held in late October, when the most recent survey was conducted, Mesic, of the Croatian People’s Party, HNS, would have won 54.3 per cent of the vote. His closest rival, Jadranka Kosor, of the ruling Croatian Democratic Union, HDZ, the current deputy premier, would have won only 17.7 per cent.


Of the six other presidential contenders, only Slaven Letica, who enjoys the support of the Croatian Party of Right, HSP, would cross the five per cent threshold, while the others would win between one and two per cent.


Mesic’s popularity is so evident that the HDZ, in spite of the fact that it is the strongest party, considered not fielding a candidate.


Ivo Sanader, prime minister and leader of the HDZ, had to weigh up which option would inflict less damage on his party – the likely defeat of his party’s candidate, or the failure to put up a presidential candidate at all.


In the end, he nominated Kosor, now in charge of social issues in his cabinet, to oppose Mesic.


“These will be Croatia’s most boring elections to date, because we know everything in advance,” Branko Mijic, a political commentator for the prominent daily paper Novi List, told IWPR.


“Mesic simply has no [serious rival], which is not good for the Croatia’s frail democracy.”


Mijic said the only unknown factor was whether Mesic would win outright in the first round, with more than 50 per cent of the vote, or go through to a run-off.


One reason for Mesic’s likely shoo-in is the support he has attracted from a range of opposition parties, whose popularity, unlike that of the HDZ, has risen slowly but steadily in recent months.


The Social Democrat Party, SDP, the Croatian Popular Party, HNS, and the Croatian Peasants’ Party, HSS, have all decided not to field their own candidates but to call on their voters to back Mesic.


“Mesic’s victory is such a sure thing that he could sleep through the entire campaign and even if he did, he would not lose more than four or five per cent of the vote,” a senior SDP official said.


Some observers warn that Mesic’s camp may be unwise in trusting too much in positive opinion poll surveys.


They recall that Mesic was a clear outsider in the 2000 election, when pollsters predicted victory for either Mate Granic of the HDZ, or for Drazen Budisa, who was backed by all the centre-left parties that won the parliamentary ballot that year.


“Mesic ranks me in the two per cent club, and forgets that this was his own position in the previous election,” presidential contender Boris Miksic, a successful businessman in the United States, told IWPR.


Miksic said that was why he believed he still had a chance of winning. He is financing his own presidential campaign to the tune of about a million US dollars.


Kosor, 52, says her advantage lies in the fact that the strongest party is backing her. A former radio journalist, and a lawyer by training, she also hopes her sex and her considerable experience on social issues (which has earned her the nickname “Mother Teresa”) could be plus points.


“We have a powerful party, which will fully stand behind Kosor,” a source close to her camp told IWPR. “It is especially important that Prime Minister Sanader joins in the campaign and appears at key gatherings with her.”


Sanader is the country’s second most popular figure, behind Mesic, and most political analysts believe his candidacy would have threatened Mesic.


But he has decided to stay at the head of government – partly, some say, because he is not convinced he would win the presidency, and partly because the post of prime minister is now seen as the more important of the two.


While Croatia’s previous president, Franjo Tudjman, wielded enormous powers, changes to the constitution in 2000 significantly reduced presidential prerogatives.


Mesic’s popularity hangs largely on his perceived simplicity. Croats give him credit for abandoning Tudjman’s autocratic style and pomp and for his willingness to see the presidency limited in its constitutional powers.


More contentiously, unlike his predecessor he has supported cooperation with the Hague tribunal, he advocates the punishment of all war criminals including ethnic Croats, and he has lobbied hard to improve relations with Croatia’s neighbours, especially Serbia and Montenegro, SCG.


“We are convinced of Mesic’s victory, regardless of whatever blows we expect in the campaign,” an official close to Mesic’s election staff told IWPR.


This official said they expected Mesic’s foes to blame him for the fact that transcripts of Tudjman conversations have reached the Hague, where they are being used as evidence against a popular fugitive general, Ante Gotovina.


However, since Sanader also advocates full cooperation with the Hague court, Mesic’s allies do not believe their man will sustain much damage from attacks of this sort.

“Low blows over the Hague will not harm Mesic,” the official close to his election staff told IWPR.  

Drago Hedl is a regular IWPR contributor.

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