Voting Around The Christmas Tree

President Franjo Tudjman is wrapping up a Christmas present for the Croatian people - a parliamentary election on December 22 that his ruling HDZ party is widely expected to lose heavily. Unless they pull a few surprises first.

Voting Around The Christmas Tree

President Franjo Tudjman is wrapping up a Christmas present for the Croatian people - a parliamentary election on December 22 that his ruling HDZ party is widely expected to lose heavily. Unless they pull a few surprises first.

Thursday, 10 November, 2005

Croatian president Franjo Tudjman has called parliamentary elections for December 22 - in the run up to Christmas - apparently in the hope that voters will be kind to his ruling Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) during the so-called 'season of goodwill to all men'.

There had been talk that Tudjman would call the vote around the holiday, but in the face of negative reaction from the public, political opposition, the international community, and quietly, the Church, he had been expected to drop the idea. Instead, anticipating a rough ride for his HDZ candidates, he went ahead anyway in a bid to try and minimise the likely damage to the party's fortunes.

He apparently hopes that people will be too preoccupied by the holiday preparations to pay attention to the campaign, while many Croats living and working abroad - traditionally more nationalist and pro-HDZ - will be expected back for the week. The vote could have been called on the previous Sunday, but instead will be held on a weekday, when work commitment and possible bad weather can be expected to deter opposition supporters further.

Nevertheless, all the polls still predict sweeping defeat for the HDZ, now holding a two-thirds grip on the 127-member parliament, but which it is expected to lose heavily to the opposition.

The opposition split into two distinct blocs last summer, after the six main parties worked together for several months. The first bloc is comprised of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) led by reformist ex-communist Ivica Racan and the Croatian Social Democratic Party (HSLS) of the moderate nationalist Drazen Budisa.

Four other parties - the Croatian Peasants' Party (HSS), the Liberal Party (LS), the Istrian Democratic Assembly (IDS) and the Croatian People's Party (HNS), make up the other opposition bloc.

Polls indicate that the two coalition blocs will collectively take the necessary two-thirds share of the seats in parliament needed to change the constitution and thus roll back Tudjman's own extensive powers, boosted by years of control over the house.

The HDZ itself is fragmented by factional infighting and weighed under by the baggage of fraud charges and criminal links that have embroiled its main figures, including members of the president's family. Its rule has left Croatia's economy in tatters and ruined its international reputation. An increase in the state pension has been announced, though the state lacks money to pay them regularly.

Tudjman's medical condition, kept as secret as possible, is deteriorating. He claims to be psychologically and physically capable of carrying on, but his lack of control over his own feuding party, let alone the country becomes increasingly self-evident.

The opposition does not yet rule out more blatant manipulation. A new law is reportedly being prepared that could smash the opposition's chances. There are rumours that the HDZ might ban pre-election coalitions. The opposition parties do not have the individual resources to contest the vote across the country separately, and can only hope to win in concert. Only the SDP could probably marshal the necessary forces to contest the HDZ on its own, but it is susceptible to easy criticism of its past communist identity.

Theoretically the opposition could solve that problem by simply converting the two blocs into single parties, but the likely reaction of the party memberships to such a plan would be hard to gauge, as several found it hard to accept the forming of the coalitions in the first place.

The HDZ is also reportedly drafting a bill to reorganise the electoral districts in its favour by breaking up the capital Zagreb into four areas, with large rural areas surrounding the city attached. This would break up the compact urban electorate and party organisations while diluting their expected support for the opposition with rural votes more likely to go to the HDZ.

The HDZ is also resisting efforts to disconnect the quota of 12 deputies assigned to Croats abroad - mainly in Bosnia-Herzegovina - where support for the HDZ is strong. According to the Croatian daily Jutarnji List, the HDZ plans to increase the numbers of deputies elected from some regions, by another 33 in total, and increase the number of seats open to the Croatian diaspora.

The main problem for the opposition is the lack of impartiality at Croatian Television and Radio. The impoverished population cannot afford to buy newspapers and the independent press, which is mostly read by people who are already opposition supporters, lacks the circulation to reach most of the country.

Thus 80 percent of the population get their news from television and radio. The HDZ knows this, and is firmly holding on to the TV. Even before the official electoral campaign began, news broadcasts were already full of Tudjman and the HDZ. To this has been added footage of ministers running all over the place, making impossible promises. Opposition access will be strictly controlled and in small doses.

In Croatia votes are counted slowly. In the last elections, in spite of computer technology, official results in some areas had not been tallied ten days after the actual vote, and this is expected to take even longer with the two day Christmas break. All these issues concern the opposition.

Then there is Tudjman himself, who could be left facing a hostile opposition run parliament with the will and the authority to curb his near absolutist powers. Tudjman says that only the HDZ can preserve Croatia's national sovereignty, and against him, the opposition is just "cattle with small teeth" and "geese in the fog". Will he be willing to accept the people's judgement and cohabit with the opposition?

The two opposition blocs say they will suspend cooperation with the HDZ until Tudjman clearly states that he would accept an opposition victory if his party were beaten on December 22.

Tudjman has previously evaded the question, leading some opposition leaders to fear that in that case Tudjman could try to retain power by force. Instead he told foreign reporters recently: "In any circumstance, I will behave responsibly as the President of Croatia, as elected by the people. Be sure that (such behaviour) will be in the interest of the Croatian people and the Croatian state."

By citing the 'national interest' Tudjman has only further unsettled the opposition.

Drago Hedl is a regular contributor to IWPR.

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