Croatia parliament votes to start constitutional changes

ZAGREB, Jul 17, 2000 -- (Reuters) The Croatian parliament on Saturday voted to start constitutional changes and reduce presidential authority, in another clean break with the authoritarian rule of the late President Franjo Tudjman.

Deputies of a small rightist party and of Tudjman's nationalist HDZ, which lost a general election to a center-left coalition in January, abstained from the vote, state news agency Hina reported. Others voted in favor.

"This marks the first step towards parliamentary democracy," the agency said. President Stipe Mesic and Prime Minister Ivica Racan signed a joint document last week to go ahead with the changes.

Once parliament's lower house adopts the changes - after what is likely to be a lengthy debate in the autumn - parliament and government will obtain as yet unspecified key roles in executive decision-making.

Under the draft changes, the president will still be directly elected and will remain supreme commander of the armed forces. He will also retain authority to dissolve parliament, but only on government request.

The current constitution gives wide powers to the president, which Tudjman exercised to the maximum, leaving the cabinet and parliament with only nominal powers.

Both Racan and Mesic have pledged to undertake thorough democratic reforms and move Croatia closer to mainstream Europe.

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