Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
"Reformed" HDZ Set to Retake Power
Croatia's right-wing HDZ party is tipped to recapture power in elections next Sunday, overturning the left-wing government that took office in 2000.
Latest polls showed a right-wing bloc taking a narrow lead in the polls with the HDZ as the single strongest party, marking a striking comeback since its resounding defeat three years ago.
Although Croatia has set a target date of 2007 for EU membership, buoyed by the desire of more than 80 per cent of Croats to join the union, an HDZ victory could delay the process.
When it ruled the country throughout the 1990s, Croatia endured international isolation owing to strong disapproval of its treatment of the Serbian minority, failure to cooperate with the war crimes tribunal in the Hague and a general perceived disregard for the rule of law and human rights.
Since the centre-left took power in 2000, Croatia has made rapid progress to the point where European accession seems possible this decade in company with Romania and Bulgaria.
The HDZ insists that if it forms the next government, it will honour Croatia's obligations towards the tribunal and last week the party also promised to speed up the return of Serb refugees.
The party has moved to head off fears of a return to 1990s-style right-wing nationalism, claiming that it is the party most suited to taking Croatia into the EU.
Leader Ivo Sanader has run a slick television and newspaper campaign, highlighting endorsements collected on a whistle-stop tour of European capitals during which he was received by centre-right politicians including Italy's premier Silvio Berlusconi.
But at a local level, the HDZ has conducted a campaign in a different spirit, making stronger appeals to traditional nationalist sentiments.
In a radio debate in October with current Social Democrat premier Ivica Racan, Sanader qualified his support for the Hague tribunal by saying he accepted the principle of cooperation but wanted "politicised" cases reviewed.
The HDZ has demanded in particular a review of the indictment of the popular former army general Ante Gotovina, which they characterise as an attempt to stigmatise Croatia's armed struggle against the Serb-led Yugoslav army and its Croatian Serb allies who together occupied one-third of the country in the early 1990s,
Split HDZ chief Zvonimir Puljic recently accused the Racan government of "fawning" attitude towards the Hague court, saying indictments against generals such as Gotovina ought to be "seriously disputed in front of the UN".
This stance conflicts with the tribunal's insistence that no review is possible until the indicted suspect is in the tribunal's custody. As the tribunal's outreach coordinator in Croatia, Denis Besedic, spelled out, "The only place an indictment can be contested is before the court."
The HDZ is in a dilemma as it ran the government during the 1995 Operation Storm for which Gotovina was indicted, and its identity is bound up with the victorious war for independence. Enthusiastic cooperation with the tribunal over an indictment connected to Operation Storm would undermine this position.
The Gotovina indictment has loomed large at HDZ election rallies, where it is presented as an attack on Croatia's right to self-defence. At an October rally in Knin, a town that Operation Storm restored to Croatian control, the crowd signed petitions in support of Gotovina with enthusiasm.
While the local head of the regional HDZ, Branko Milinovic, said "no one is going to judge our army", his colleague Luka Rebic added that instead of surrendering "our generals" to the Hague, a HDZ government would restore their dignity.
Although the left-of-centre government had a patchy record of cooperation with the tribunal, the HDZ insists the left has betrayed the independence struggle and compromised Croatia's security.
At a rally in Vukovar on October 14, the party claimed that if the left-of-centre coalition had been in power at the beginning of the war Croatia would now be without one-third of its territory.
In Imotski, southern Dalmatia, Sanader said Racan's government needed to be replaced "because of the victims who fell in the Homeland War, because of the 35,000 invalids created by the war, because of the 130 dead heroes from Imotski, because of the widowed mothers, because of all those humiliated and deprived, and because of the [country's] defenders whose rights have been restricted". SDP candidates were pelted with eggs in Imotski some days after the speech.
Sanader's sharp tone in Imotski contrasted with the image he sells abroad of himself as a reformist, moderate, pro-European figure, and it casts a question mark over his verbal commitment to allowing Serb refugees to return.
Since the Operation Storm victory over rebel Serbs in the hilly Krajina region, UNHCR says only 100,000 of the 280,000 Serbs who left Croatia have returned. A recent Human Rights Watch report said there had been progress but that obstacles remained. The spokesperson for the OSCE mission in Croatia, Alessandro Fracassetti, said, "Unless the atmosphere improves, the choices refugees have to make will continue to be affected."
Milorad Pupovac, president of the Serbian National Council, which lobbies for Serb rights in Croatia, said he had doubts about Sanader's sincerity in backing Serb returnees. Dismissing "trendy" calls for Serbs to return, he said what mattered was not verbal appeals but political decisions "that remove the obstacles to return - proper implementation of the amnesty law, enforcement of property rights, and economic revitalisation of war-affected areas".
He added that any sign of the HDZ's conversion to the cause was important owing to its nationalist credentials. "It is significant that the party with specific responsibility for the situation of the Serbs has made such a statement," he said.
Sanader's call for Serbs to return home sits uneasily with the tone adopted by HDZ speakers at rallies in the Krajina region.
Many rallies have featured nationalist songs, and speakers have addressed the crowd as "dear Croats". At the Knin rally, Sanader himself thanked all those attending as "proud Croats and believers".
At the same gathering, HDZ deputy president Andrija Hebrang said he welcomed all those who had returned following expulsion, but his words seemed directed to Croats expelled under the Serbs in the early 1990s rather than the Serbs expelled in 1995.
Sanader said he supported the right of people to return to their property but added that this needed qualifying if it negatively affected Bosnian Croat refugees, many of whom fled to Croatia in the 1990s and live in former Serb homes.
Luka Rebic also attacked the government's handling of the Bosnian Croats, whom he praised for assisting the defence of Dubrovnik against the Yugoslav army. The crowd's enthusiasm for the speeches showed the level of support the HDZ can expect from refugee settlers from Bosnia.
Nevertheless, the HDZ will not net all the settlers' votes, as some Bosnian Croat leaders in Croatia have called on the community to vote for the extreme-right HSP, which until only very recently had been praising the second world war fascist Independent State of Croatia.
Splits in the HDZ between left and right over Bosnia are visible. When it last ruled Croatia, the party took a colonial line towards the Bosnian Croats, but this stance has now been modified.
The HDZ overruled some of the murkier candidates nominated by its more hard-line Bosnian sister, the HDZ-BiH, for a joint electoral list in the country's 11th electoral unit, a much-criticised arrangement under which the Croatian diaspora (mostly Bosnian Croats) gets a say in Croatian elections.
Sanader has not disowned the diaspora's right to vote in elections and at the party rally in Vukovar he castigated the government for a lack of enthusiasm over the provision, saying he would personally bus in Croats from Germany to vote if necessary. The worse problems facing Serb refugee voters in neighbouring Serbia and Montenegro were not mentioned.
In Imotski, Sanader attacked the Racan government for neglect of the diaspora and abandoning the Croats of Bosnia "when we are all one nation". "To the attack on Hercegovinians, I answer - I am also a Hercegovinian!" he said.
Sanader has trodden a fine line between building up his international profile and maintaining local support at the grassroots.
His rise to power followed the death of the former president and HDZ founder Franjo Tudjman in 1999. A power struggle brought the little-known Sanader to the helm after in-fighting between the factions had gravely weakened the party.
By July 2000, public support for the HDZ had plummeted to 7 per cent. Sanader's leadership has transformed its fortunes and support has bounced back to around 35 per cent.
The "new" HDZ has become vulnerable to attack in the process for betraying Tudjman's legacy and going soft on national issues. Analysts say the HSP stands to benefit at the polls.
When Sanader told the Vukovar rally he would cooperate with neighbouring countries, including Serbia, his words were met with silence from the crowd.
The party has also expelled former Croat general Ljubo Cesic Rojs - originally from Bosnia - who was blacklisted by the EU and the US. It cited his extreme anti-Serb views. Denouncing what it called his "hate-speech", the party said, "We reject and dissociate ourselves from all of Cesic's actions."
The impassioned rhetoric heard at the HDZ's rallies in Knin, Imotski and Vukovar may be a calibrated response to this threat from the right, ensuring traditional voters are not alienated.
Sanader's more conciliatory line remains unpopular with many party stalwarts.
At a party congress in July this year, delegates booed an address by Doris Pack MEP, which reiterated the need to cooperate with the tribunal.
And Hebrang contradicted the official line by defending Cesic Rojs as a "hero of the Homeland War", telling the newspaper Novi List in early November that he might "do much for us in the field" even after his de-selection.
Fears of a complete return to the policies, rhetoric and style of Tudjman government are probably misplaced. Croatia's political atmosphere has changed since 2000, and the HDZ is unlikely to attempt a clean break with the direction the country has recently pursued.
It will not be able to form a government without making a coalition, so will not be in a position to dominate politics as it did in the 1990s.
From next Sunday, the HDZ may be in a position to prove its democratic pro-European credentials and dispel suspicions over its agenda.
The EU enlargement commissioner Günter Verheugen in Zagreb on November 13 reminded Croats that while he welcomed the country's bid to join the EU by 2007, Croatia should bear in mind why it is not part of the group of 10 countries that will become members of the union in 2004.
Anna McTaggart is IWPR's senior operations officer.
As coronavirus sweeps the globe, IWPR’s network of local reporters, activists and analysts are examining the economic, social and political impact of this era-defining pandemic.
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