Nationalists poised for comeback in Croatia

Polls predict the party to win parliamentary race


SPLIT, Croatia - Croatia's former governing party, ousted almost four years ago in disgrace over allegations of corruption and its hard-line nationalist policies, is making a comeback and is favored to win parliamentary elections held yesterday.

Opinion polls predicted that the party, the Croatian Democratic Union, would win the largest number of seats in the first legislative elections in four years.

While no group is expected to gain an absolute majority, and the winner may have to form a coalition government, victory for the nationalist party would be a remarkable change in its political fortunes.

The party governed the country for nine years, from Croatia's declaration of independence from Yugoslavia in 1991, through two wars, first against Croatian-Serbian rebels backed by Serbia and then against Serbs and Muslims in Bosnia.

The conflict in Croatia, and the hard-line policies that favored ethnic Croats, prompted an estimated 280,000 Serbs to flee the country. As the party held on to power after the wars ended in 1995, accusations of cronyism, rights abuses and tight control of the news increased, culminating in the party's resounding defeat in elections in January 2000.

But now a new leader claims to have abandoned the nationalist heritage of the party, known as HDZ, its initials in the Croatian language, and transformed it into a center-right grouping, one with a decidedly pro-American stance and with a goal of helping Croatia join NATO and the European Union within the next two to three years.

"There is no room for any radicalism in this party," said Ivo Sanader, who could become the next prime minister. "We have tried to convince the international community that this is a new HDZ, committed to human rights, to democracy, to the rule of law, minority rights and philosophy of the free market economy."

The election pits Sanader's party against the center-left coalition government of five parties, led by Prime Minister Ivica Racan. Dogged by infighting, his administration has been accused by critics of failing to pursue the reforms it promised when elected in 2000.

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