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Croatia: Voters Go To Polls In First Peacetime Election Since 1990

Prague, 11 April 1997 (RFE/RL) - Voters in Croatia go to the polls this weekend (April 13) to elect local and municipal officials and the upper house of parliament, or House of Counties. This is Croatia's first peacetime election since 1990, when communist rule ended.

Sunday's ballot is important for at least two reasons. First, it serves as a mid-term index of the popularity of President Franjo Tudjman's Croatian Democratic Community (HDZ), which has run the country since 1990. Second, it is a key element in the reintegration of Serb-held eastern Slavonia into Croatia.

The HDZ has reason to fear for its dominant position. Polls show that voters regard it as authoritarian, bloated, complacent and corrupt. They especially see it as out of touch with the daily problems of ordinary citizens, particularly where standards of living are concerned. Discontent is most noticeably strong in the cities and in some of the regions, such as Istria, where Tudjman's centralized rule is particularly resented.

Signs that the HDZ is in trouble appeared in the October 1995 parliamentary and Zagreb elections. Tudjman called the vote in the wake of the army's successes against the Krajina Serbs, and the HDZ hoped to make political capital out of the victories. A new election law, moreover, was weighted in favor of the ruling party. The HDZ nonetheless lost badly in Zagreb and saw its parliamentary position weakened. Gone were the days that it could hope for a two-thirds legislative majority and rewrite the constitution at will.

But the HDZ's position is far from weak, and it still is easily Croatia's largest party. It is also the last of the broad-based mass movements formed in eastern Europe to end communist rule that has not split into ideologically based factions. Critics say this is because the party has become a network of vested interests, which have no intention of weakening their own power by destroying the party.

In any event, the HDZ has tried to identify itself to the voters with the country's achievements since independence in 1991. The party uses incumbency and its control over the electronic media to make electoral propaganda at state expense. And in the last analysis, its strongest appeal is summed up by its old campaign slogan: "You know what you've got."

The HDZ's main strength, however, is the incompetence of the opposition. Most of the important parties outside the HDZ have programs that are little different from that of the governing party. This includes the second most popular party, the Croatian Social Liberal Party (HSLS). The opposition has proven incapable of forming a national coalition like that of the Serbian Zajedno and they have yet to find a leader who can even begin to compete for votes with the charismatic and popular Tudjman.

Polls nonetheless suggest that the HDZ stands to lose ground across the country. The losses may force it into coalitions with opposition parties in some places, or even entice the opposition into forming coalitions of their own. But "dirty tricks" by the HDZ are not out of the question, as the last election showed. Thus, the opposition took control of the Zagreb city council in October 1995, but the HDZ has tried ever since to divide the opposition and rule the city government. And most important, Tudjman the whole time has used his veto to block every opposition candidate for mayor of Zagreb. His argument that he cannot turn the capital over to "enemies of the state" says much about his understanding of democracy.

A somewhat different set of issues is involved in the elections in eastern Slavonia, the last Serb-held area in Croatia. Under a series of agreements involving the UN, Zagreb, Belgrade and the local Serbs, reincorporation is slated for mid-July.

Sunday's elections are a important milestone in the reintegration. It will also be the first time that Serbs and Croats have voted together there since 1990. In recent months, the local Serbs held out for political concessions before committing themselves to joining in the process. In the end, they formed a broad coalition called the Independent Serbian Democratic Party (SSDS) to unite the Serbian vote and take control of local and municipal governments. The 73,000 Serbian voters will face 68,000 Croatian refugees, who are likely to split their votes among a variety of Croatian parties.

The big question is how the Serbs will fare after the elections and after July. Serbian leader Vojislav Stanimirovic openly says that his people must stay where they are because they have nowhere else to go. The UN and Tudjman have told them they will enjoy full rights as Croatian citizens. But Croatia did not exactly make local Serbs feel welcome after its victories against them in 1995. And Tudjman on Tuesday already announced that he will soon travel in his nationalist-inspired "Freedom Train" to eastern Slavonia's Vukovar -- and take "all of Croatia" along.