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Croatia: Stipe Mesic Wins Presidency

  • Alexandra Poolos

Croatians turned out yesterday to elect Stipe Mesic as their new president. Mesic, the affable People's Party leader, has promised to reverse the legacy of isolationism and economic decline left by the late autocratic ruler Franjo Tudjman. Correspondent Alexandra Poolos reports that the new president also pledges to limit presidential powers.

Prague, 8 February 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The election of Stipe Mesic as Croatia's new president marks the last phase in a remarkable bout of political change in the former Yugoslav republic. The death of Franjo Tudjman and the subsequent loss of his ruling Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) have set the stage for a new start in Croatian politics.

Mesic, who was the last leader of the collective presidency before Yugoslavia disintegrated in 1991, earned the support of voters with his down-to-earth manner and simple approach to politics. During the campaign, the People's Party leader told voters that if elected he would remain "just one of you." A robust 65-year-old, he was seen as a sharp contrast to the autocratic ruler Franjo Tudjman, who died last year after a protracted illness.

Mesic's rival in Monday's runoff election was Social Liberal leader Drazen Budisa, who took close to 44 percent of the vote while Mesic took 56 percent. Budisa and Mesic ran on largely the same political platform: reduced presidential powers, economic reforms, human rights and press freedoms, and integration into the European Union and NATO.

The run-off was therefore seen more as a contest of personality than one of policy. Budisa, who began the campaign riding high on his party's win last month in parliament, lost favor with the Croatian electorate partly because his stiff manner led many to compare him to Tudjman.

Mesic has promised to lead the country back to the international community. In his victory speech last night, Mesic said his first job as Croatia's new leader will be to reach out to the EU and NATO. He vowed to invite many foreign leaders to visit Croatia and said that, in turn, he will go "wherever he is invited."

His first stop, Mesic says, will be Brussels, to court favor with the EU.

"I'm going to be president of all the citizens of Croatia. We have a great job to do. We have to open ourselves to Europe. We want our strategic goals to be fulfilled as soon as possible. We want to enter the European Union and become a member of NATO. We want to establish relations with all our neighbors in a way that would provide us with a safe entry to European integration."

Tudjman and his ruling Croatian Democratic Union had enveloped Croatia in tight isolation, running the country into a severe economic crisis and disregarding international standards for human rights and press freedoms. Tudjman and his party were also accused of widespread corruption.

But soon after his death, a six-party opposition bloc won the parliamentary elections. The new parliament, led by Prime Minister Ivica Racan, has already taken action to distance itself from nationalist policies, free up the media, promote economic reforms and support human rights.

Mesic says that although the old party is out of power, many corrupt officials still benefit from the old system. Mesic distinguished himself during campaigning by vowing to root out corruption and retool the largely impotent judicial system.

"The initiative for anti-corruption -- this is needed. And in this state either there is a Mafia or there isn't. There's war profiteering or there's not war profiteering. This just shows that the justice system did not function. My duty is to use all means and the government mechanisms to deal with this. "

Like the other presidential candidates, Mesic vowed to limit the powers of the presidency, which were heavily abused in the past. He says that, before he is inaugurated 10 days from now, he will meet with Prime Minister Racan to discuss their future cooperation. Both men say they want the president to retain the position of commander-in-chief and to have an important role in foreign policy. Racan's parliament, which was sworn in less than two weeks ago, has promised constitutional changes that will redefine Croatia as a parliamentary democracy with limited presidential powers.

The level of cooperation between the president and prime minister will be closely watched. Racan, a Social Democrat, openly supported Mesic's opponent during the runoff campaign. He expressed serious doubts about Mesic's qualifications, going so far as to call him a "smiling Tudjman." But Mesic has said that he will nevertheless look to Racan and the new parliament to outline his future role as Croatia's leader.

Mesic says that he has no plans yet for his cabinet. He says he must first wait to see how the new parliament envisages the office of the president. Mesic says he is ready to accept whatever is decided in parliament about his future powers.