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

Mesic Triumph Shakes Sanader's Grip on Power

Disappointing HDZ show in presidential poll may have a knock-on effect on ruling party’s results in local elections.
By Drago Hedl

Stjepan Mesic’s landslide victory in Croatia’s presidential elections and the overwhelming defeat of the Croatian Democratic Union, HDZ, candidate Jadranka Kosor have put Prime Minister Ivo Sanader in a tight spot.


Analysts suggest the outcome of the poll is likely to portend flagging support for the HDZ in local elections due to be held shortly.


Mesic won 66 per cent of the January 16 second round vote in a face-off with Kosor, winning in 19 of Croatia’s 21 municipalities and ensuring him another five years in office.


The magnitude of his victory is best illustrated by the fact that Croatia’s first president, Franjo Tudjman, won only 57 per cent in Croatia’s first post-independence presidential poll. He took 61 per cent in the 1997 ballot, when he was at the peak of his power.


Mesic seems well aware that he will probably go down in history as the head of state who took Croatia into the European Union, which, if everything goes according to plan, should happen in 2009.


His address after the official election results were published suggests he looks forward to this honour.


“Croatia is taking giant steps towards Europe and we must now stand united, as we need a national consensus to achieve our goals,” he said in his televised speech to the nation.


“There are different parties and opinions but we must all have a common strategic objective,” he added. “I call upon you to join forces for the sake of a righteous, modern Croatia, belonging to all its citizens.”


Kosor, a deputy prime minister, said she was satisfied with the 34 per cent of the votes that she took in the second round.


Visibly dejected on learning of her defeat, she thanked Sanader, who is also the HDZ president, for being brave enough to let a woman represent Croatia’s biggest party in the presidential election.


Kosor went on to congratulate Mesic, though she added that she was proud to have represented a single party in the race, while her victorious rival was backed by a coalition.


Political analysts believe the outcome of the poll reflects a general public desire to avoid any repetition of the Tudjman era, when the HDZ enjoyed almost absolute power.


Hence, voters opted for a political balancing act, leaving the HDZ in control of parliament and government but not the presidency.


Analysts also believe the outcome indicates that the HDZ’s popularity is dropping, pointing to the fact that Kosor lost in many municipalities that used to be HDZ strongholds. This may herald troubles for the HDZ in the upcoming local elections.


The outcome of the presidential election is bound to affect the local elections, as they take place in just three months, Ivan Siber, professor at Zagreb university’s political science faculty, told IWPR.


Sanader faces a certain plunge in his popularity, he added, because local elections are always an inverse reflection of parliamentary ballots and because the HDZ has not kept most of its promises.


Mate Granic, a former foreign minister and presidential candidate in 2000 who now heads a political analysis agency, agrees that Sanader could be in for some serious trouble.


“Mesic would have claimed victory in the first round victory had it not been for the votes of expatriates,” he told IWPR.


Granic was referring to ethnic Croat citizens of neighbouring Bosnia who are entitled to vote in Croatian elections - and who cast ballots overwhelmingly in favour of Kosor and the HDZ.


“This means support for the HDZ has dropped dramatically in only 18 months,” Granic added.


Sanader may be out of office before his term expires if the HDZ does badly in the local elections, as his control of parliament rests on the fragile support of parties that clearly did not tell their voters to support Kosor, Granic concluded.


Sanja Modric, a columnist of the daily newspaper Jutarnji list, said the two-thirds of electors who chose Mesic in the second round did so because they did not want one party to have all the power in Croatia.


“An HDZ government will be checked by an opposition president who has the power to strike a balance between the conflicting interests of political blocs in tense situations,” she said.


This is crucial, at a time when Croatia faces painful reforms that are necessary if it wants to meet EU standards.


The general perception is that a politically wounded Sanader now has no option but to accept a period of cohabitation with President Mesic.


Sanader’s position has been further weakened by the fact that he had to let go of his foreign minister, Miomir Zuzul, earlier this month. Zuzul quit after being accused of taking bribes. He denies the charges.


Sanader is also about to lose the services of another loyal lieutenant, Andrija Hebrang, also a deputy prime minister, who has been forced out by serious illness.


Goran Cular, a political science professor at Zagreb University, predicts an era of peaceful cohabitation, albeit with a fair amount of personal jockeying and jostling.


“They have an accord on fundamental objectives, such as the European Union,” he said, referring to Sanader and Mesic, even if they disagree on personnel and other matters.


Cular added, “ They will show mutual respect to each other but will naturally look for any opportunity to get one over the other in terms of political popularity.”


Drago Hedl is a regular IWPR contributor based in Osijek