Winning Team?

The former communist Ivica Racan and moderate Croat nationalist Drazen Budisa have teamed up to defeat Croatia's ruling HDZ in parliamentary elections which have to take place no later than January next year.

Winning Team?

The former communist Ivica Racan and moderate Croat nationalist Drazen Budisa have teamed up to defeat Croatia's ruling HDZ in parliamentary elections which have to take place no later than January next year.

Thursday, 10 November, 2005

Had parliamentary elections taken place in Croatia in the middle of August, the coalition of the Social-Democratic Party (SDP) and the Croatian Social-Liberal Party (HSLS), would probably have come out on top, thus over-turning almost a decade of Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) rule.

According to Zagreb daily Jutarnji List - which publishes weekly opinion polls - the SDP-HSLS coalition would have picked up 31.8 per cent of the vote. That is easily more than the ruling HDZ of Croatian President Franjo Tudjman, which would only have polled 20.3 per cent. Such a result would have heralded major changes in the former Yugoslav republic, independent since 1992.

Parliamentary elections are scheduled in Croatia no later than January of next year, though no date has yet been set. Calling an election is the prerogative of the President and Tudjman is no doubt waiting for the best moment for the HDZ. Trouble is, as things stand, no time appears good for the ruling party.

The SDP-HSLS coalition, which currently leads in the polls, was only formed this month, on 6 August in Split, to the surprise and dismay of the rest of the Croatian opposition. Hitherto, the six most important opposition parties - the SDP and HSLS as well as the Croatian People's Party (HNS), the Croatian Peasant Party (HSS), the Liberal Party (LS) and the Istrian Democratic Party (IDS) - had formed a single opposition bloc.

In-depth opinion polling carried out by the Washington based International Republican Institute at the end of last and the beginning of this year had suggested that the six-party coalition would win parliamentary elections with close to 50 per cent of the vote.

However, as election day came closer, differences between the coalition partners become more evident, with what should have been internal discussions often degenerating into public quarrels. This appeared to undermine the six-party coalition's electoral prospects.

As a result, the SDP's Ivica Racan, Croatia's last communist leader, and the HSLS's Drazen Budisa, a former dissident, leaders of the two strongest parties, decided to go it alone and form their own two-party coalition. That said, the two men were quick to explain that their coalition does not rule out local electoral deals with other opposition parties in some of the larger constituences.

Although critics of the new alliance, in particular the former coalition partners, fear that the unilateral SDP-HSLS move represents a split in the opposition, which will undermine prospects of defeating the HDZ, the opinion polls suggest otherwise.

Without doubt, the SDP-HSLS alliance is benefiting from the unpopularity of the ruling party, which, since winning independence for Croatia, has presided over a steady economic decline and increasingly appears out of touch with ordinary people. As a result, many in Croatia now look back on the last years of the former system, the years of Racan's "liberal communism" with nostalgia.

In the course of 1990, following the 1989 fall of the Berlin wall and the disintegration of the League of Communists of Yugoslavia, the SDP reinvented itself. It discarded all vestiges of Marxism-Leninism and remodeled itself along the lines of a modern European socialist party, offering relative economic prosperity, job security and social justice.

This contrasts with the sleaze which now characterises Croatian political life, the many financial scandals of recent years and the impunity with which senior HDZ officials have seemingly enriched themselves at the expense of the state. Worse still, more than 20 per cent of Croatia's population are currently out of work.

Racan's personal popularity has been on the rise for several years and, according to the opinion polls, his party alone would likely win more votes than Tudjman's HDZ. However, despite this, Racan has calculated that he requires a partner to be sure of defeating the ruling party.

Expecting the HDZ to fight a dirty campaign and to use state-controlled media to smear him for his communist past, Racan sought a coalition partner with impeccable nationalist credentials. Hence the Budisa alliance, since Budisa was a student leader during the Croatian Spring in 1971 who was subsequently imprisoned for nationalism during the communist era.

As polling day draws nearer, it remains unclear what electoral system will be used and whether there will be any controls on state-owned Croatian television and other media. It is clear, however, that senior members of the HDZ are worried by the forthcoming vote and are thus engaging in mutual recriminations as to responsibility for Croatia's international isolation, poverty and lack of prospects.

In panic, the HDZ has announced tax cuts. However, since the state does not possess the money to finance this measure, many analysts fear that by this measure the HDZ will in practice just be making the task of turning the economy around more difficult for its eventual successors.

Another problem in the event of an opposition victory will be the constitution. Unless the opposition parties win a two-thirds majority, their victory may prove Pyrrhic, since, at present, a disproportionate amount of power is vested in the office of the president and two-thirds support in parliament is required to cut those powers back.

Tudjman has a mandate until 2002 and can, therefore, make it almost impossible for the opposition to govern.

Drago Hedl is home affairs editor of Rijeka daily Novi List and a regular IWPR contributor.

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