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

The President In Hospital, Croatia On The Eve Of Elections

After weeks of denial and misinformation, the truth is out - Croatian President Franjo Tudjman has been fighting for his life in the Dubrava hospital in Zagreb for more than two weeks.
By Dragutin Hedl
In the ten years of his rule Franjo Tudjman did his utmost to ensure that the new Croatia and the old Yugoslavia looked as little alike as possible. Yet in the matter of his possible death he is recreating the peculiar process of denial and deception that surrounded the passing of Josef Broz Tito himself.



The medical team working on the Croatian president's case issues regular updates on his condition, in just the way the dying Tito's doctors did 20 years ago. Then as now the party hacks feuded over the succession and the right to govern a country riven by poor economic prospects and heavy foreign debt (today some nine billion dollars).



US doctors established back in November 1996 that Tudjman was carrying an otherwise inoperable stomach carcinoma, but the 77 year old president always refused to acknowledge his condition in public.



Whenever the matter of his health came up, out came the official deceptions. A rush operation on November 1 was described as minor treatment for a torn intestine (diverticulosa) and did not mention the carcinoma at all.



Earlier in October, obviously weakened by his condition, he cancelled appointments on a state visit to the Vatican claiming "tiredness and a cold". A journalist who asked about his health during that trip was berated in public. "Be a normal person," Tudjman snapped. "Don't be in a service of those who wish some other Croatia and who are once again pushing it to the Balkans." According to reports he is now suffering from peritonitis.



Tudjman's illness could not have happened at a more difficult time. The country is working up to parliamentary elections scheduled for December 22. The leadership of his ruling HDZ party is divided by factional squabbling and its public image is at an all-time low. Defiance of the Hague War Crimes Tribunal and his policy in Bosnia has threatened Croatia with international isolation.



Tudjman held significant authority in his hands, but as he weakens so does power. It is slipping into a vacuum. Officials postponed Friday's scheduled dissolution of parliament ahead of the elections and said it would convene as normal until Nov. 27. However the election has not been called yet; only the president can do this, and he has yet to do so despite his closest associates' claim that "Tudjman is running the country from the hospital".



The Croatian Constitution stipulates that, in case the president is prevented from carrying on his duties or in a case of his death, the speaker of parliament takes over and leads the country for two months, during which time presidential elections are held.



But the problem is much more complex in practice. Speaker Vlatko Pavletic is a pale political figure with practically no influence in the ruling party. The Constitutional Court is also in the process of being disbanded to make way for a new bench of judges.



The Constitutional Court has already ruled that even if parliament is not sitting, Paveletic's role will be unchanged if Tudjman dies, but the possibility that neither parliament or constitutional court will be empowered in what could be Tudjman's last days is ominous.



Without Tudjman's hands-on rule the HDZ has split apart, into three factions.



Ivica Pasalic, the President's powerful advisor, heads the first for interior policy and informal successor of Gojko Susak, the late Defence Minister. He is also considered the leader of the 'Herzegovina' lobby, the supporters of the Bosnian Croats.



The second is headed by the shrewd Deputy Parliament Speaker Vladimir Seks, and the third by 'liberal pro-European' Foreign Minister Mate Granic.



The battle between those three lobbies could determine the future of Croatia over the upcoming months. Pasalic has no state function and maintains his power through patronage. According to rumour, the present Speaker might abdicate in case of Tudjman's death, in which case Seks would routinely replace him and act as president ahead of elections.



Mate Granic enjoys the support of the international community and is one of the more popular HDZ politicians in the country. But he has weak support within his party and it is unlikely he would be nominated.



Up until the latest revelation, officials insisted that Tudjman's recovery was proceeding well. Some officials even said he would be fit enough to support the election campaign. Since being hospitalised, he has only been seen by his family and his chief of office. Not one photo of him in his hospital bed has been published.



The real test of his fitness must come before November 22. Parliamentary elections, already scheduled for December 22, must be formally called a full month before they are to take place, and only Tudjman can do it. If he cannot, the constitutional court must formally rule him as unfit to govern and the speaker must step in.



The public mood as traced by numerous opinion polls, suggest the voters are ready for a change and if the elections are fair, the HDZ will almost certainly lose power. But will they recognise those results and decide to hand over power peacefully?



Tudjman was always vague on this point, but Seks is firmer. The HDZ, he says will not simply hand over power to the opposition if it is incapable of leading the country. Croatia is entering uncertain weeks and months. Pasalic is no more trustworthy on this point. The post-Tudjman era has already started.



Dragutin Hedl is a regular contributor to IWPR in Zagreb.