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Croatia: Ruling Party Wins Again

Prague, 15 April 1997 (RFE/RL) - President Franjo Tudjman's Croatian Democratic Community (HDZ) has emerged a clear winner in last Sunday's election for the upper house of parliament and for local and county governments. And in eastern Slavonia, where vote-counting has just begun, international observers agreed that the vote in the last Serb-held enclave of Croatia was basically free and fair.

Early returns from across the country show that the HDZ has increased its majority in the upper house (House of Counties) from 37 to 41 out of the 63 seats allocated equally among the 21 counties (Tudjman appoints an additional five deputies, for a total of 68). Of the remainder, the Croatian Peasants' Party (HSS) took nine seats, the Croatian Social Liberal Party (HSLS) seven, the Social Democratic Party (SDP) four, and the Istrian Democratic Party (IDS) two. In the counties themselves, the HDZ has clearly won in 17 and lost in two, while two additional races are still too close to call.

The opposition did well again in some key cities, such as Split, Rijeka, Osijek, and Dubrovnik. But the HDZ appears to have won the largest single bloc of votes in Zagreb, as it did in 1995. Unofficial tallies for Sunday's vote suggest that Tudjman's party will have 24 seats in the capital's city council, against the SDP's 14, the HSLS's nine, and the HSS's three. Since the Social Democrats and the Liberals have an electoral pact, the HSS now finds itself in a king-maker role.

As this morning's issue of the Split daily Slobodna Dalmacija points out, the big winners are Tudjman and the SDP's Ivica Racan. Pundits in the opposition and the independent media had predicted big losses for the HDZ, since polls suggested that many voters see it as corrupt and ossified.

For its part, the former communist SDP (it is the only key party without the word "Croatian" in its name) has emerged from the margins of political life, where it was until fairly recently. It has now become the second strongest party in the capital and shown that social democracy may well have a future in Croatia.

The rest of the nation-wide opposition parties seem to have paid a political price for their failure to develop their own alternative to the HDZ and Tudjman. Regionalism is still a force, however, as the IDS's sweep in Istria showed.

But Sunday's vote was important not just for what it said about the balance of political forces in Croatia proper. It was also the first time since 1990 that Serb-held eastern Slavonia voted with the rest of Croatia. The ballot is a key component of that region's reintegration with Croatia, slated for completion in July.

UN spokesmen, U.S. Ambassador to Croatia Peter Galbraith, and local Serb leader Vojislav Stanimirovic all said in Vukovar on Monday that the vote in eastern Slavonia was basically free and fair. UN officials nonetheless blasted Croatian authorities for not delivering enough ballot papers on time and for irregularities in the voting lists, as a result of which Sunday's vote was extended to Monday as well. The UN also criticized the Serbs for waiting until the last minute before announcing a decision to take part.

The roughly 70,000 Serbs put forward a united slate behind the Serbian Independent Democratic Party (SSDS). The approximately equal number of Croatian refugees are likely to have split their vote between several parties. Results are due later this week.