Croats view election today as best chance for democracy

Years of poverty, isolation from West make nation hungry for change, peace

January 03, 2000|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

ZAGREB, Croatia -- The election season in Croatia has been shortened by fate and the nationalist incumbents, who stopped campaigning once to mourn the late President Franjo Tudjman and again for celebrations of Christmas and New Year's.

But even the abridged stumping has convinced Croats and foreign observers that after five successive dictatorships this century, the parliamentary balloting today and a presidential vote three weeks later are the best chance for a democratic Croatia and peace in the region.

Shunned by the West for human rights abuses and impoverished by war and high-level corruption, the Croatia left by Tudjman is a nation hungering for change.

Despite the advantages of incumbency and Tudjman's hallowed image as the George Washington of Croatia, the ruling Croatian Democratic Union, known as the HDZ, is trailing an unusually cohesive opposition because the HDZ stands for the one thing Croats know they don't want: the status quo.

"This is a golden opportunity for the opposition, as it is obvious they will get a majority of seats in parliament. The only question is whether they will be able to make a difference soon enough," said Slaven Letica, a political analyst who once served as national security adviser but left Tudjman's regime when it became increasingly nationalistic.

The problems besetting Croatia run the gamut from a ravaged economy to poisonous relations with its minority Serbs and its Balkan neighbors.

The new leadership, however it is arrayed among the six opposition parties likely to form a grand coalition, will have to balance placating international human rights critics and the Croatian people, who see themselves as being disproportionately punished for a regional conflict started by Serbs.

Tudjman's death Dec. 10 stirred sentiments of gratitude among Croats for his leadership in wresting their first independent state in nearly a millennium from the collapsing Yugoslav federation.

But the late leader's autocratic behavior and disregard for Croatia's international standing have given voters pause to reflect on their isolation and the disastrous drop in living standards that coincided with his nearly 10 years in power.

"People vote with their stomachs," said Ivica Racan, head of the Social Democratic Party. Polls project that the party, with the Social Liberals, will get the largest share of votes in the parliamentary elections.

The two parties, campaigning as a team, promise a coalition government if victorious. But there is a good chance that they will not win a majority and will have to align in a larger coalition with the four other opposition parties, whose members refuse to cooperate with the HDZ.

Though the HDZ sought to benefit from public sympathies for Tudjman by setting the vote soon after his death and at a time when many Croats are abroad for the holidays, Racan believes the strategy will backfire.

With 18 percent unemployment and many of those with jobs paid below the poverty line, the Christmas break has served more to give Croats time to contemplate their sagging fortunes than to relish the HDZ's sole accomplishment of independence.

"Although some of our voters will be out of the country and more HDZ supporters will be coming in, the citizens will revolt against this attempt to manipulate the outcome," said Drazen Budisa, Racan's Social Liberal partner.

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