Racan Government Fails to Deliver

Ruling coalition could pay a heavy political price for its failure to meet election pledges.

Racan Government Fails to Deliver

Ruling coalition could pay a heavy political price for its failure to meet election pledges.

Tuesday, 6 September, 2005

Unfulfilled promises and political infighting are to blame for a collapse in public support for Croatia's incumbent left-wing coalition, which will face a tough test in parliamentary elections this Sunday, analysts say.

When they came to power in 2000, the ruling alliance, led by prime minister Ivica Racan's Social Democratic Party, SDP, promised to reform Croatia's justice system, prosecute fraudulent businessmen, cooperate fully with the Hague tribunal and sort out the much-criticised privatisation process.

But with these promises unfulfilled, unemployment and external debt still running high and the coalition having long since slipped into a cycle of bickering and political infighting, observers say the November 23 elections will be a close run thing.

Polls suggest that the left-wing coalition currently has only a 2.5 per cent lead over its competitors, with support for the SDP and the main right-wing party, the Croatian Democratic Union, HDZ, standing at 22.4 per cent and 24.3 per cent respectively.

As the SDP struggles to attract voters and the HDZ continues with its efforts to transform itself into a modern right-of-centre party, many observers see their political platforms converging and predict that they will soon become indistinguishable, even speculating about a potential coalition between the two rivals.

Reform of Croatia's justice system and punishment of those who have in the past made a profit at the expense of the state are high on the list of complaints levelled against the SDP-led coalition.

The Croatian media has produced a series of reports highlighting the extent of corruption in the judiciary and Racan's government has made some effort to address the problem. But the dismissal and arrest of a number of lower court judges and trial proceedings against state barrister Slavko Canjuga are viewed by many as an inadequate response.

While some European Union demands concerning the reform of Croatia's justice system have been met in recent years, analysts say important changes have not yet moved beyond the planning stage.

Observers agree that the most crucial step will be to change the personnel who run the system, but Racan and his government have shied away from this, fearing accusations of revenge against a judiciary appointed by the HDZ in the 1990s.

In the meantime, Croatia's legal apparatus remains weak. Immediately after the 2000 elections, several Croatian tycoons were detained on suspicion of illegal business practices. Trials are currently underway, but it seems highly unlikely that any of the suspects will be convicted and punished.

Many left-wing voters in particular are disappointed with the government's failure to fulfil its promise to comply fully with the demands of the Hague tribunal, a prerequisite for Croatian membership of the EU.

Criticism of Zagreb's refusal to hand over war crimes suspect General Janko Bobetko eased only with his death in late April of this year. Croatia has also failed to extradite indicted general Ante Gotovina. Officials claim they are unable to locate him.

There's also been criticism of the ruling coalition for both delaying a promised reform of privatisation legislation and failing to fulfil a pledge to review some of the more controversial sell-offs.

The HDZ government had introduced a law that enabled party cronies to use bank loans to buy state concerns, which they then asset-stripped.

The present authorities continued to use this privatisation legislation, only recently reforming it.

Croatia's economy is another sore point. When the alliance took over from the HDZ in 2000, around 400,000 Croatians were unemployed and the county's external debts amounted to 12 billion US dollars. Three years later, 350,000 remain jobless and the amount owed to foreign creditors has almost doubled.

"Under Racan's government, rampant bankruptcies have left workers jobless. Almost all the banks have been sold to foreigners. It's the same with the media, the Croatian oil company and postal service as well. Stagnation and destruction of the principal industries and economic activities have not been reversed, while the prospects for young people to get jobs and apartments of their own are next to nothing," Stipe Suvar, leader of the Socialist Workers' Party, told IWPR

Besides these persistent problems and unfulfilled promises, the coalition has also been caught up in continuous infighting throughout its time in power, especially over contentious issues such as territorial disputes with neighbouring Slovenia and cooperation with the Hague tribunal.

In 2001, a minor coalition partner, the Istrian Democratic Union, IDS, which had four parliamentary deputies, walked out of the government. Later, in a more serious incident, the Croatian Social Liberal Party, HSLS, which had 23 seats in the assembly, withdrew.

The government was left on the brink of collapse and was saved only when a number of parliamentary deputies and former HSLS ministers formed a new party, Libra, which aligned itself with Racan and his allies.

As the SDP struggles to maintain public support and the HDZ continues to transform itself into a modern right-of-centre party, many analysts agree that it has become increasingly difficult of late to distinguish between the political platforms of Croatia's main left- and right-wing parties.

As part of his efforts to appeal beyond his core constituency, Racan has made several overtures towards the church - in the process alienating many of his key supporters. He has introduced religious instruction into schools and banned shops from opening on Sundays, a move which is likely to result in the loss of 15,000 jobs.

"I'll vote for the SDP or the HDZ. I haven't made up my mind yet. This may sound odd but if you look at these parties more closely, you'll see there are almost no differences in their political programmes and election promises," said Mojmir Jadrijevic, a student at the Zagreb School of History and Sociology, reflecting a widespread view.

Such is the SDP's nervousness over the election that it has employed some highly unusual election tactics, similar in style to past HDZ campaigns.

Racan has added athlete Mirko Filipovic to his party's election list. The inclusion of Filipovic, who is not a member of the SDP, appears to be an attempt to attract conservative voters, as his views are quite clearly at odds with the values of the party.

The sportsman has said in interviews that women are not as capable as men, that homosexuals are "mentally deranged" and that homosexual relations are "unnatural". Nonetheless, he is third on the SDP election list, behind Culture Minister Antun Vujic and Racan himself.

The SDP has also recruited Croat turbo-folk star Severina, who used to wear T-shirts bearing the face of the late HDZ leader Franjo Tudjman.

Given the increasing alignment of SDP and HDZ policies, rumours circulating about the possibility of a post-election alliance between the two parties may not be as unrealistic as they might have seemed just a month ago.

Croatian president Stjepan Mesic addressed the issue in a recent interview with Split-based magazine Feral Tribune. "No single party will be able to win enough votes in this election to form the government on its own," he said. "This is why the SDP and HDZ might form a coalition, thus avoiding being blackmailed by minor coalition partners. Their differences are not unbridgeable any more, which makes such an agreement a realistic option."

Mesic pointed out that the formation of such an alliance would increase political stability in Croatia, something that a government with only a slim majority in parliament would struggle to achieve. He also noted that the EU would welcome such a solution, boosting Croatia's chances of joining the EU by 2007, which is the main political objective shared by the SDP and HDZ.

Whatever the basis of these rumours, observers agree on one thing - the SDP-led coalition no longer enjoys the level of support it had when it began its term in 2000.

A member of the SDP main board, who is disappointed with the policies of his party's leadership, told IWPR, "Racan is aware of the fact that he's lost his chance. He cannot possibly expect the same level of support, the same readiness of the people to embrace radical changes, which he enjoyed immediately after the previous general elections, even if the left-wing parties are victorious again."

Drago Hedl is a regular IWPR contributor.

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