Tudjman's HDZ party suffers historic defeat

ZAGREB, Jan 4, 2000 -- (Reuters) Croatia's opposition center-left secured a stunning general election victory over late President Franjo Tudjman's HDZ party to take control of the country's parliament, according to preliminary results released early on Tuesday.

With 27 percent of the vote counted, the main opposition bloc headed by former Communist Party leader Ivica Racan was clearly ahead in nine out of 10 multi-member constituencies.

Racan, eager to win back the support of Western governments that have shunned Croatia in protest over Tudjman's autocratic rule, said he was confident he could form a solid majority.

"As things stand at the moment we have achieved a better result than that forecast by the opinion polls. It is proof that the people want change and recognize that we can bring it about," the 55-year-old career politician said.

"I am ready to become prime minister and I am aware it is not going to be easy."

The nationalist HDZ, which has governed the former Yugoslav republic since 1990 and had never previously lost at the ballot box, did not wait for the full results before conceding defeat.

"We have lost the election, but I swear we shall be a very serious and firm opposition," Foreign Minister Mate Granic told reporters in the early hours of Tuesday.

Tough inheritance

The center-left inherit a country in the grip of economic hardship, with unemployment running at a record 20 percent, investment dwindling and average monthly salaries of just $400.

Racan has also vowed to cut the state budget by 17 percent, trim sales taxes and offer fiscal breaks to encourage investors.

Elections to choose a successor to Tudjman, who died last month, are scheduled for January 24. Opposition supporters said they were confident they could build on Monday's triumph to secure the powerful presidential post.

"I am looking forward to the presidential election with greater optimism than ever, and I expect to beat my opponents in the first round," said the main opposition candidate, Racan's ally Drazen Budisa.

The state electoral commission said initial returns from Monday's ballot gave the Social Democrats and Social Liberals an average 40.5 percent of the vote. The previously invincible HDZ took 24.4 percent and a second main opposition bloc of four centrist parties took 16.2 percent.

Because of Croatia's complex proportional representation system the number of seats won in the law-making lower assembly will not be known before Tuesday night or Wednesday morning, but the opposition thought they were on course for a huge majority.

In the last general election in 1995, the HDZ won 44 per cent of the vote and took 75 of the available 127 seats.

Bosnian Croats set to lose funds

In all, more than 4,000 candidates from 55 parties stood for around 150 seats in the expanded lower assembly. The exact number of seats will be determined by how many Croatian expatriates voted.

The expatriates, most of whom live in neighboring Bosnia, make up parliament's 11th and last constituency.

Results from that section will not be known until later on Tuesday. The expatriates are traditionally firm HDZ supporters and the party has poured money into the Croat community in Bosnia. This financing is now at risk.

The West disapproved of Tudjman's Bosnia policy and accused him and his HDZ party of failing to respect human rights or cooperate fully with a United Nations war crimes tribunal.

As a result, Zagreb has been denied access to European Union funds, barred from NATO's Partnership for Peace program and blocked from even initial talks on EU membership.

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