Croatian presidential election results in Mesic-Budisa runoff

ZAGREB, Jan 25, 2000 -- (Reuters) Croatian voters have driven home the message that they are ready for change in the post-Tudjman era but an inconclusive first round election left two pro-Western rivals battling it out for the presidency.

Centrist Stipe Mesic led in results announced early on Tuesday with 42 percent of the vote, short of the absolute majority needed to succeed the late autocrat Franjo Tudjman.

He faces a runoff ballot on February 7 against Social Liberal leader Drazen Budisa, who came in second with 28 percent.

Both are members of a six-party coalition which won a general election on January 3, ousting Tudjman's nationalist HDZ from office for the first time since independence in 1991.

Tudjman's party took another battering on Monday, with outgoing foreign minister and party moderate Mate Granic trailing in third place with less than 22 percent.

Of the remaining six candidates, four rightist leaders mustered just above three percent of votes among them.

Mesic, a 65-year old jurist, told journalists he was ready to make a clean break with Tudjman's strongman rule which alienated the West and starved Croatia of much-needed aid.

"I am definitely different than Tudjman. For a start, the powers of the president were too wide," Mesic told cheering supporters in a packed hall after the electoral commission read out the results.

"I am here to help the new government review the situation and to support its European orientation," Mesic said, adding he was sure of winning the second round.

In Budisa's camp, however, there were fears that Mesic's victory could upset the precarious balance in Prime Minister-designate Ivica Racan's new coalition of Social Liberals and Social Democrats.

Mesic represented a bloc of four centrist parties which have agreed to work with Racan. However, there is little love lost between him and Budisa and the next two weeks promise to see some hard hitting.

Mesic said he supported parliamentary democracy with autonomous decision making in parliament and government. But he added he would watch carefully to see if the government would deliver on its promises to boost employment, attract foreign investment and fight crime and corruption.

"A government in every country... either does or does not satisfy its citizens. If a government fails in its tasks, the question is whether that government should stay in power."

Racan unhappy, backs Budisa

Budisa failed to capitalize on the general election triumph while Mesic wooed voters with his folksy, down-to-earth approach to politics, which Racan dismissed as "modern populism."

Racan made it clear he would support Budisa to the hilt.

"My message is clear: the elections are not over yet," he said. "I see the chance and the need for a reversal in the second round, and the chance for the electorate to think about things a little bit more," he told reporters.

Tudjman, who died on December 10 after a long battle with cancer, led Croatia to independence and easily won its first two presidential elections in 1992 and 1997.

The European Union hailed the HDZ's general election defeat as proof that democracy could flourish in the Balkans, leaving Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic ever more isolated.

Western leaders have indicated over the past month that they believe they could work with either Mesic or Budisa.

Unlike Tudjman, both men have promised to cooperate with the United Nations Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia and vowed not to meddle in Bosnian politics.

The bearded, bushy-browed Mesic was imprisoned for two years in 1972 by Yugoslav communist authorities for promoting Croatian nationalism. Ironically, he went on to become the last president of the federal republic before it fell apart in 1991.

Critics accuse him of lacking political vision and relying mostly on his charm, while Budisa displayed a strong grip of facts and figures but appeared stilted alongside Mesic.

Of some 4.3 million voters in Croatia and abroad, mostly in Bosnia, 64.27 percent turned out on Monday - well under the 76 percent tallied in the general election. Icy, wintry weather kept many people at home, the electoral commission said.

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