Zagreb, 14 April 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Croatians are now awaiting the official outcome of elections which are seen as a key test of popularity of President Franjo Tudjman and his ruling Croatian Democratic Union, the HDZ.
At stake are seats in the Upper House of Parliament and in local and regional bodies. Voting in most of the country ended last night, with the exception of the United Nations-administered Eastern Slavonia region. Polling there among the largely ethnic Serb population is continuing through today after a chaotic start yesterday.
Leaving aside Eastern Slavonia, which is a special case, early unofficial or preliminary results indicate that the HDZ is leading in nearly all of Croatia's polling districts for the Upper House. But in the capital Zagreb, an opposition coalition containing the former communists is running evenly with the HDZ. Zagreb is considered the key prize in the local elections because of its dominating position in Croatian economic and political life.
The opposition coalition consists of the Social Democratic Party, SDP -- the former communists -- and their ally the Social Liberals, HSLS. An RFE/RL analyst in Zagreb reports that in the frantic and hard-hitting pre-election campaign the SDP emerged as the most likely alternative to the ruling party.
Our correspondent reports that the Social Democrats basically had no choice, because circumstances put them in such a role even though they tried to avoid being singled out. Studiously avoiding wearing a red coat, they sought to prove that a very Croatian heart beats in each and every one of them. They are prone to emphasize Tudjman's and the HDZ's historic merits, and they never question the principles of the ruling party's policy.
But our correspondent reports that, in contrast to most of the opposition parties which are confused and unstable, the SDP looks stable and decent. The arrogance of the ruling party did them a service. The vicious aspects of the HDZ's campaign definitely promoted the Social Democrats into the rival perceived as most dangerous by the HDZ. An avalanche of video-clips, songs, public messages calling the Social Democrats names such as chetniks, Bleiburg murderers (Bleiburg is a village near the frontier between the Austria and the former Yugoslavia where, at the end of the Second World War, the communists executed the remains of the Croat pro Nazi army) commies, Yugos, potential killers..... the electoral rhetoric of the ruling party was wholly committed to one purpose: accusing the reds.
Such a campaign may have proven counterproductive. The ardor of the offensive was a compliment to the SDP in that it showed the nervousness of the HDZ. If the public developed a perception that the accusations were unfounded or exaggerated, it might be provoked to show solidarity. Besides, the past is no longer as horrible as it once seemed to be. The time when the word "worker" was considered anti-Croat has gone. The attacks forced the Social Democrats to sharpen their position and accept the role that has been imposed to them.
But the HDZ is not only afraid of the SDP's electoral showing in this election; its greater fear is a possible return of old ideas. Not that it expects the renewal of what used to be Yugoslavia or that form of communism. Even the panicky HDZ knows that such a reincarnation is not possible. The ruling party is afraid of the simple ideas of social justice, worker's participation, local autonomy. The very set of ideas the former regime used to proclaim, although it did not always carry them out.
The public is ready for just such a comeback. People in Croatia are tending to compare the present government with the former regime -- first and foremost comparing their own status before and now. Beset by relentless economic problems, more and more Croats feel an impulse, rightly or wrongly, to look back at the past.
The necessity of the creation of a Croat state is not being questioned, but its contents are. The HDZ attacked the SDP so fiercely because it knows its best chances of staying in power rest on making illegitimate every attempt at comparison with the past.
(Jelena Lovric, who wrote this analysis for RFE/RL, is a leading Croatian journalist)