Int. Herald Tribune
Tudjman's nationalists lose in Croatian election

By Steven Erlanger

Paris, Wednesday, January 5, 2000


ZAGREB, Croatia - The center-left opposition won a sweeping vic-tory in parliamentary elections, official results indicated Tuesday, delivering a sharp rebuke to the governing Croatian Democratic Union and opening up the prospect of much warmer ties between Croatia and the West.

The opposition victory dethroned the Croatian Democratic Union, or HDZ, the umbrella nationalist party founded by Franjo Tudjman, the president who died last month. The party has ruled Croatia since Mr. Tudjman took it to independence in 1991 out of the wreckage of Tito's federal Yugoslavia.

With more than 80 percent of the vote counted from Monday, the main opposition bloc formed by the Social Democrats, led by the former Communist Party leader, Ivica Racan, and the Social Liberals, led by a former dissident, Drazen Budisa, had a clear lead in eight out of 11 multimember constituencies.

Mr. Racan is likely to become prime minister, and he will also have the voting support of a smaller, allied opposition coalition of another four parties.

At their headquarters, Mr. Racan and Mr. Budisa raised their arms high as a crowd cheered. Mr. Racan said: ''We were aware of people's feelings. We'll do our best to justify their confidence.''

But Mr. Racan added later: ''We will need a lot of sacrifices on all sides in order to turn things around soon.''

The governing party has conceded defeat, but the exact size of its embarrassment - and of the new opposition majority - is subject to Croatia's complicated system of proportional representation. It is made even more complex by an 11th constituency made of the Croatian diaspora - mostly Bosnian Croats and émigrés - who maintain dual citizenship and can vote in Croatian elections. Minorities are also guaranteed another five seats.

As a sort of guide, analysts were predicting that Mr. Racan's bloc was likely to have 70 or 71 out of 140 fixed seats in Parliament but would likely need the support of its allied coalition, which could take 24 seats, to have a working majority in a legislature that could have 150 seats. The HDZ would have 40 or 41 seats. But the six opposition parties looked to be short of the two-thirds majority they need to pass constitutional changes, like the diminishing of presidential power.

''We have lost the election, but I pledge that we shall be a very serious and firm opposition,'' the current foreign minister, Mate Granic, said.

Mr. Granic, a moderate in the HDZ, is Washington's favorite to replace Mr. Tudjman and become the new president in separate elections on Jan. 24. But the size of his party's defeat is likely to hurt Mr. Granic's chances, and it may accelerate the breakup of the party or push it more to the center. Mr. Budisa will be the main opposition candidate in what will be a crowded field. A second, runoff round, on Feb. 7, is likely to be necessary for any candidate to win the required simple majority.

Under Mr. Tudjman and the HDZ, Croatia slipped into economic decline, with high unemployment and widespread allegations of corruption, the issues that fed this opposition victory. But Croatia was also run as an outwardly democratic autocracy, with all effective power concentrated in the presidency and the party, and there were strict controls over state television in the style of neighboring Serbia, run by President Slobodan Milosevic of Yugoslavia.

In interviews, Mr. Racan has promised media freedom, respect of human rights and more cooperation with the West over Bosnia and with the international tribunal looking into war crimes in the former Yugoslavia. In the past, Croatia has been reluctant to hand over wanted suspects, though compared with Belgrade it has cooperated well.

Mr. Tudjman had a contentious relationship with Washington and the West. His nationalism was expressed loudly, and he meddled in Bosnia, promoting a separate Croatian entity while formally supporting the Federation of Croats and Muslims that Washington imposed on him.

He saw plots to undermine Croatian independence and sovereignty and organized effective intelligence networks in both Croatia and Bosnia to spy on Western diplomats, journalists, businessmen and aid workers.

Mr. Racan says he does not share such suspicions, although he is careful not to offend the deep nationalist streak in the Croatian public. But his government is likely to mean an early rapprochement with the West and the European Union, with rapid movement to study Croatia's application to join the European Union and a resumption of EU aid. Washington is also likely to provide more economic aid and finally allow Croatia to join NATO's Partnership for Peace.

Mr. Racan also promises a difficult and politically painful economic restructuring of small Croatia, with a 17 percent cut in budgetary spending, a reduction of onerous taxes, a more open and honest privatization of state industries and banks, and efforts to reduce unemployment, which is well over 20 percent. He says he will cut some official salaries in half, including the pay of legislators.

The Clinton administration hopes the victory of the opposition, which it has supported, will be a model for the squabbling democrats in nearby Serbia. The opposition in Croatia has overcome its own divisions and the unfairness, according to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, of an early election date chosen by the HDZ.

But the comparison of Croatia and Serbia is flawed, as senior European diplomats in Zagreb acknowledge. Of course, unlike Mr. Tudjman, Mr. Milosevic, only 58, remains in good health and in control of all the levers of state power, including the state media, and he runs the former Communist Party, which has never lost control in Belgrade.

With this victory, it is expected that Madeleine Albright, the secretary of state, will make an early visit to Zagreb to publicly ''reward'' Croatians for voting in the opposition, another effort to get a message to Belgrade, U.S. officials say.

In an interview published Tuesday, Mr. Budisa said, ''Our immediate task is to pull Croatia out of economic crisis, remove anomalies in our democratic system and to lure the country out of international isolation.''

The turnout was high, estimated at more than 78 percent of the nearly 4.2 million eligible voters.




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