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Mesic Tops Presidential Polls

As Croatia's presidential race enters the closing straight, three front runners--Stipe Mesic, Drazen Budisa and Mate Granic--have left the other six candidates in their wake.
By Drago Hedl

Days before Croatia elects a successor to the late President Franjo Tudjman, the contest appears a three-horse race with the former Yugoslavia's last president, Stipe Mesic, ahead of his rivals Drazen Budisa and Mate Granic in the polls.


According to the latest opinion polls--which proved reliable in predicting results in the parliamentary elections on January 3--Mesic is likely to win 30% of the vote in Monday's ballot. That is 5 per cent more than Budisa, the former anti-Communist dissident and leader of the Croatian Social-Liberal Party (HSLS), and 15 per cent more than Mate Granic, Tudjman's long-time foreign minister.


Mesic's lead in the polls reflect a major shift in attitudes among voters in recent weeks.


At the start of the presidential election campaign, before results of the parliamentary elections had been made public, Granic was well ahead of his rivals in the opinion polls. But the HDZ's heavy defeat in the parliamentary elections and ensuing squabbles within the party have undermined Granic's prospects.


Granic had to fight to gain the HDZ nomination against long-term rival Vladimir Seks, an HDZ hardliner and long-time deputy speaker of the Croatian parliament.


To salvage his chances, Granic threatened to leave the HDZ if he won the presidential elections and complained that due to the party's unpopularity and reputation for corruption, his membership of the HDZ was a millstone around his neck.


But following his selection as the HDZ candidate, Granic could not leave the party. His partial distancing of himself from the HDZ failed to boost his campaign, although it did seem to halt the plunge in his popularity.


Mesic, the candidate of the "Opposition Four"--a coalition combining the Croatian Peasants Party, the Croatian Peoples Party, the Liberal Party and the Istrian Democratic Assembly--began the campaign lauguishing at only 10 per cent in the polls, with seemingly little chance to reaching the second round of voting.


Despite the initial polls, however, Mesic has emerged in the course of the campaign as the frontrunner. Opinion polls have placed him at the top of the list for the past 10 days and it looks unlikely his rivals will be able to claw back his advantage before the January 24 vote.


Commentators attribute Mesic's rise and appeal to voters by the contrast between him and former president Tudjman. Mesic, who was the first prime minister in Tudjman's 1990 HDZ government, comes across as a direct, simple and down-to-earth person, with no time for Tudjman's pomp and extravagance.


Having played a key role in the year leading up to Croatia's independence declaration in June 1991 and during the Croatian war, Mesic became president of the HDZ and published a book under the controversial title "How we Destroyed Yugoslavia" in 1992, a title which was changed in later editions.


In 1994 Mesic split with Tudjman, resigned as speaker of the Croatian parliament and left the HDZ together with 10 more deputies in protest against the way Tudjman was prosecuting the Bosnian war. Since then he has been an outspoken critic of both Tudjman and the HDZ.


Budisa, the joint candidate of the Social Democratic Party and the HSLS coalition who was a student leader during the Croatian Spring in 1971, had good reason to be optimistic early in the campaign following that coalitions stunning victory in the parliamentary elections. Opinion polls carried out in the wake of the parliamentary elections showed a majority of voters intended to back him.


As the campaign proceeded, however, Budisas popularity began to slip. Commentators say this is because Budisa has come over as stiff. Moreover, he has surrounded himself by bodyguards and almost assumed a presidential posture, akin to that of Tudjman.


Ivan Zvonimir Cicak, another student leader from the Croatian Spring and long-time friend of Budisa, believes the secret of Mesic's success lies in his "new political speak", his relaxed delivery and rapport with ordinary people--traits which, Cicak believes, he shares with international statesmen Bill Clinton and Tony Blair.


If current polls prove accurate, the election will have to go to a second ballot between Mesic and Budisa and the HDZ will have been removed from all levels of government. The eventual victor will be the candidate who picks up most votes from Granic's supporters and those yet to make up their mind.


Irrespective of the final result, the coalitions supporting Mesic and Budisa have signed agreements on inter-party co-operation and will together form a new government. Both Mesic and the prime minister-elect, Ivica Racan, have announced plans to cut back the authority of the president in favour of parliament and the government.


Drago Hedl is a regular correspondent for IWPR in Zagreb.


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