Presidential elections in Croatia

Mesic and Budisa in the second round.


THU, 27 JAN 2000

Zagreb, 25 January, 2000 - Stipe Mesic has missed by a neck the opportunity to become the new president of Croatia in the first round of the elections. In the elections that took place on Monday, he beat hollow all his rivals. According to the still unofficial data, Mesic won 42 per cent of the votes, Drazen Budisa who ranked second and who is the candidate of the coalition of Social Democrats and Liberals which in the recent parliamentary elections won a decisive victory, collected 28 per cent of the votes, and the candidate of the Croat Democratic Community (HDZ), the former foreign minister Mate Granic won slightly less than 22 per cent of the votes. The remaining six pretenders to the vacant Tudjmanís post have not achieved notable results.

During the short, two-week long campaign, spectacular changes took place. Granic had entered the race as a favourite, polls had predicted him a big advantage, he enjoyed the support of the Catholic Church and the international community. But since HDZ experienced complete debacle in the parliamentary elections, his chances rapidly diminished. The frantic quarrels inside the HDZ had the same effects, its leaders could not maintain even the relations of fundamental decency. Granic had tried to save himself by withdrawing from all party posts and clearly disassociated himself from the HDZ, but it was too late. He now admits that he should have left the party altogether and run in the elections as an independent candidate, but with his calculating nature he did not have the guts for such a radical move.

"It was impossible to make up for the time past. Such a party could not yield a winner", says Granic who was pretty much alone in the night election results were published, since almost none of the party leaders came to his election headquarters. Despite his failure he does not intend to go back to his medical profession, he will remain in politics, he will be a deputy in the assembly and will probably soon set out to win the party over or, should it prove unlikely, he will secede his faction and found a new HDZ. "I donít wish to be a member of just any party, there will be no compromise in this sense, I cannot be together with all the people who are now in the party, I definitely cannot", that is how Granic, after he had recognised his election defeat, announced that the antagonism in HDZ continues.

It was believed for a long time that Budisa had the best chances to succeed Tudjman. His known wish to become the president of Croatia was this time backed by a powerful group consisting of his Croatian Social Liberal Party (HSLS) and the Social Democratic Party (SDP). This coalition came out of parliamentary elections triumphant, so it was believed that the glory of this success will easily be transferred to him. Budisaís gatherings were crowded, but polls showed that he was simply unable to improve his position which was persistently the second, support did not grow, it was stagnant and even declined.

Budisa remained far below the result achieved by the SDP-HSLS coalition in parliamentary elections (about 47 per cent of the votes). The public sees him as an honest but too rigid man who is not sufficiently modern; the sentence he served for Croatia is mentioned with respect, but it is also observed that he has not managed to overcome the trauma caused by it. It is generally believed that he is not a radical break with Tudjmanism and that in this respect he does not correspond with the spirit of modern Croatia. Budisa does not seem to be able to get the votes of SDPís voters. Although the leadership of Social Democrats is doing its best to have him elected, sympathisers of this party seem to be giving their votes to Stipe Mesic. That Budisa is experienced as a repetition of Tudjman can also be concluded from the fact that leaders of HDZ of Bosnia & Herzegovina publicly promised to support him in the second round.

The biggest surprise was caused by 65-year old Stipe Mesic, who was at first a close associate of Tudjman and then one of his bitterest critics. He was Tudjmanís first prime minister and as a representative of HDZ regime the last president of former Yugoslavia, but since six years ago when he resolutely broke up with Tudjman and HDZ, he was not very successful in politics. He entered the election campaign as an outsider, polls showed that he had quite a miserable amount of support. Four minor parties which fared below expectations in the parliamentary elections backed his candidacy. Despite the fact that he was not given much chance, Mesic quickly took the lead. Nobody expected such a rise, so media started analysing the secret of his success.

Mesic did not have to start from scratch, he was once very popular, all the public had to do was remember him. Polls show that his greatest trump card is - simplicity. People stress his open-heartedness, the fact that both while in power and while in the opposition he has remained normal. The public, especially the young, like his unpretentiousness, his several times verified resistance to the charms of power. The decade of Tudjmanís choleric parading wore Croatia out to death. Mesicís attitude to power appears to be so relaxing. Although he used to be close to Tudjman many have the impression that he is quite the opposite to politics and style of rule of the late president.

Mesicís personal charm is the antipode to Tudjmanís rule of quarrelling and snarling. Contrary to the former head of Croatia who spread the spirit of intolerance and treated all those who were not with him as enemies, Mesic generally practises friendly relations, maybe even overdoing it. The split with Tudjmanís politics, equally as six years ago, is nowadays transparent the most in the attitude to Bosnia & Herzegovina. In the election campaign Mesic insisted on square accounts between Sarajevo and Zagreb. Under the pretext of aiding Croats in Bosnia & Herzegovina, Tudjmanís regime in fact tried to financially tie Herzegovina to Croatia, believing that money would complete what was begun in the war. Mesic believes that Croatia must not and cannot pay for Tudjmanís infatuated aspirations for greater Croatia any more.

Such a stand won him an applause in Croatia and resistance on the other side of the border. Mesicís voters state that he is the only presidential candidate who openly opposed the outflow of money from Croatia to Herzegovina. One fifth of his electorate says that this is the main reason for his victory. What is a recommendation in Croatia has become an aggravating circumstance in Herzegovina. Leaders of B&H HDZ openly expressed their opposition to Mesicís election and in Croatia which is seized by feelings of anti-Herzegovina this strengthened his position. Generally speaking, of all presidential candidates, Mesicís break with the past is believed to be the most radical one, he has become the leader of anti-Tudjmanism and the public highly appreciates it. Perhaps in his life story Croatia recognises the road to its own political change.

The second round of presidential elections will take place in two weeks. Mesicís advantage is very big, but Budisa believes that victory is quite attainable for him. The question is who Granicís votes will go to. Mesic hopes that honest members of HDZ will support his election, Budisa is cautious not to declare that he will get the support of voters of HDZ, although it is increasingly evident that the right wing of the political spectre is gathering around him. Allegedly even the ultra-rightists will give him their votes.

The campaign was so far very fair and it took place in a very good atmosphere. It is estimated that in the second round there might be more nervousness, and that it might even be dirtier. HDZ is definitely defeated. It stands no chance to preserve the powerful levers of power through the post of the head of the state, this need not be feared any more. It should be feared, though that the second round of presidential elections will increase tensions in the new ruling coalition. The race is now moving inside the six-party coalition - the question that arises is whether Budisa as the candidate of SDP-HSLS, and Mesic, as the candidate of four minor parties of the same coalition will manage to put their joint interest above their rivalry. HDZ hopes that their competition might break the new ruling coalition.