Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, March 2000, Pages 58, 80

Special Report

Croatia, in Parliamentary and Presidential Elections, Decisively Rejects Hard-liners’ Policies

By Alan Heil

“Croatia has found its civic soul.”
—Columnist Drazen Vukov Colic, Novilist newspaper, Rijeka, Croatia

“Tudjman, on the one hand, wanted a modern Croatia, linked to the West. But he was also linked with the Croatian hard-liners in Bosnia hoping that Herzegovina would connect itself to Croatia. For the ”˜new Croatia,’ an approach to the European Union will be a top priority. The EU can and should ask a price for that: restraining the nationalist demons.”

—Editorial in De Volkskrant, Amsterdam, The Netherlands

The recent landmark parliamentary election in Croatia heralds, for the first time, the coming to power in that country of center-left political leaders prepared to replace nationalists who fomented the horrific Balkans conflicts of the early 1990s.

It was a stunning landslide victory for a coalition of Social Democrats, Social Liberals and four other opposition parties. Together, they swept the ruling Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) of the late Franjo Tudjman from power scarcely three weeks after the state funeral of the wartime nationalist leader. If it can sustain campaign unity in actually governing, the SDP-Liberal Party (HSLS) coalition and its allies will control very close to the two-thirds of the lower house of parliament necessary to amend Croatia’s constitution.

In neighboring Bosnia, the decisive rejection of hard-liner Tudjman’s HDZ was greeted with widespread approval by Bosniak Muslims and moderate Croats. There was some reserve among Bosnian Serbs, and great apprehension among hardline nationalist Bosnian Croats, mostly in Herzegovina, who until now have been supported by and closely allied with Zagreb. For the past decade, Tudjman and his associates have sought to encourage Croat separatists there. Their eventual goal: to split off Herzegovina and other Croat-populated sections in Bosnia from Bosnia and incorporate these areas into Croatia itself. Tudjman and Company funded espionage activities in Mostar and were instrumental in discouraging the return of Bosniaks and Serbs to their pre-war homes in Herzegovina and other areas with Bosnian Croat majorities.

A measure of the challenge ahead for the new leaders of Croatia was apparent as the voting took place. Despite the HDZ’s sharp reversal of fortunes at home during the Jan. 3 parliamentary election, the legacy of Franjo Tudjman remained alive and well in the Croat community in Bosnia. The HDZ carried more than 85 percent of the diaspora voters (most of them in Bosnia) and automatically won five or six seats in parliament. Two days after the polling, the state election commission announced that due to obvious fraud at 11 polling stations in Bosnia, voting there must be repeated.

At a post-election news conference in Zagreb, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) had said: “Serious irregularities observed in some polling stations in Bosnia and Herzegovina must be investigated.” The head of the observer mission in Croatia for OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, Nikolai Vulchanov, noted that at polling stations in Bosnia, more than 100,000 had cast ballots. At that rate, he added, a Croat voter in Bosnia would have to have dropped a ballot in a ballot box every seven seconds without letup over a two-day period, close to a physical impossibility. An election observer in Bosnia reported that a number of voting registration IDs bearing the same name were handed out by HDZ-dominated local election commissions to some voters there”“meaning that individual voters could cast more than one ballot if they chose to do so.

Because Herzegovina is heavily dominated by HDZ voters, a repeat of the voting process to correct the deficiency may slightly reduce the total number of HDZ seats in parliament. That could send a welcome new message of resolve in Zagreb for free and fair voting, in advance of future elections. And, it could enable the new reform government to amass just the necessary two-thirds necessary to revise the constitution. Changes then could be made to reduce the near- dictatorial powers of a presidency tailor-made for the late Franjo Tudjman. Last November, even the center-left coalition candidate in the Jan. 24 Croatian presidential election, Drazen Budisa, had urged reduction of the powers of the office he would be seeking less than two months later.

Lately, there has been heightened concern among Croatians about the wealth amassed by HDZ leaders, corruption associated with the Tudjman family and its friends, and the huge costs of the investment in military and paramilitary nationalist organizations in Bosnia. A Western diplomat who visited an election rally in a small town in northern Croatia in mid-December was struck by direct evidence of this concern. A local candidate of what was then the center-left opposition told a crowd: “A vote for the HDZ is a vote for Herzegovina.” This, the diplomat said, was followed by sustained applause.

Aside from its possible positive impact on Croat-Bosniak relations in Bosnia, a second message of the Croatian reformers’ landslide is that advocates of moderation and a new generation of leaders have a chance to succeed. The swearing in of a new reform Croatian parliament Jan. 22 says, in effect, that the old wartime leadership can be changed. Social Democrats in Bosnia and perhaps elsewhere in the Balkans can be elected, if coalitions”“unlike the fractured opposition in Serbia”“work together to promote long overdue change.

To quote Zlatko Lagumdzija, the president of the Bosnian Social Democratic Party, “election results in Croatia represent an initial change in the concept of authority in the region.” After 40 years of communism and 10 years of nationalism in Croatia, he said, Croatia is entering “a third way, and the next step is changing the concept of authority in Bosnia.” Even the newspaper of the ruling nationalist Bosniak party in Sarajevo, Dnevi Avaz, agreed that the unprecedented election of a reform government in Croatia could “easily spread to voters here.”

One of the most striking aspects of the Jan. 3 parliamentary vote in Croatia was how closely independent and opposition pre-election polling matched the final results. In Bosnia, two recent public opinion polls of Bosniaks and Serbs conducted by the U. S. State Department showed a significant decline for the leading nationalist parties in the Bosnian Serb entity and the Federation, and a striking increase in support for the Social Democrats in Bosnia. The forthcoming municipal and parliamentary elections there, tentatively scheduled for April and the autumn of 2000, will be a test of the trend.

Another test, of course, will be how well the new reform government in Croatia fulfills promises made during the campaign and immediately after the election: to tackle daunting problems in an economy with 20 percent unemployment, to permit the return of Serbs displaced during the 1991-1995 war in the region (theoretically easing, at last, the return of some Muslims in Bosnia displaced from their homes during the conflict), and to cooperate more fully with prosecutors of the International Tribunal in The Hague seeking to indict Croats accused of war crimes in the early 1990s.

It was inspiring to observe at firsthand polished urban professionals and humble village folk, the well-educated and the unlettered, the young and the old, casting their ballots in this landmark election in Croatia. In the 17 mostly freezing polling stations my OSCE team observed in towns and villages southeast of Varazdin in the north, turnout was heavy. Nationwide, the number of voters exceeded that in the last election three summers ago. This, despite slippery roads on a crystal clear wintry day in the north where temperatures hovered around zero degrees Celsius. The ruling HDZ strategy of holding an election in the depths of winter backfired. People clearly felt change was long overdue.

Alan Heil, a regular contributor to the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, was an OSCE observer at the Jan. 3 Croatia parliamentary election and deputy director of the Voice of America before his retirement two years ago.

SIDEBAR

PRESIDENTIAL FIRST-ROUND BALLOTING STRENGTHENS MODERATE VICTORY IN CROATIA

On Jan. 24, Croatian voters in the first round of presidential elections strongly reinforced the victory of the moderates in the parliamentary poll earlier in the month. Sixty-five-year-old Stipe Mesic, last chair of the former Yugoslavia’s rotating presidency and a candidate of a smaller four-party centrist coalition, gained nearly 42 percent of the vote. Second was the nominee of the SDP-Social Liberal Party coalition, Drazen Budisa, with 28 percent. The two were slated, as the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, went to press, to face each other in a Feb. 7 runoff. Foreign Minister Mate Granic, the candidate of President Tudjman’s hard-line HDZ and a moderate in that party, finished third with 22 percent of the vote and was eliminated from further contention in the presidential race. A number of observers called the first-round results the final consolidation of a new era in Croatian politics. —A.H.