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Croatia: Presidential Election Campaign Begins

Prague, 30 May 1997 (RFE/RL) - President Franjo Tudjman is widely expected easily to win a third term in the June 15 elections. But the campaign and the vote might provide signs of changes in the political landscape.

The state election commission announced on May 27 in Zagreb that only three candidates had managed to collect the necessary 10,000 signatures to win a place on the presidential ballot. They are Franjo Tudjman of the Croatian Democratic Community (HDZ), Zdravko Tomac of the Social Democratic Party (SDP), and Vlado Gotovac of the Croatian Social Liberal Party (HSLS). Gotovac also has the backing of at least eight other opposition parties or groupings. All three successful candidates kicked off their respective campaigns in Zagreb on May 28.

Tudjman has held office since 1990 and governs in a paternalistic, authoritarian fashion. He tends to identify his own interests and policies with those of the state and country, and keeps a tight grip on the media. Tudjman recently celebrated his 75th birthday by attending a gala at the Croatian National Theater, and the theme of the pageant was to stress Tudjman's life and ideas as the culmination of all Croatian political history.

Few Croats would deny his merits in leading the movement for national independence. But his authoritarian style, together with what many observers see as the corruption and ossification of the HDZ itself, have irritated many voters. Still, the HDZ easily remains the strongest party and it trounced the opposition handily in the April 13 elections for local governments and the upper house of parliament.

Part of the reason for the HDZ's continued strength is the weakness of the opposition. Gotovac is a former communist-era dissident who heads a party torn by in-fighting. Both Tomac and his party are tainted in the eyes of many Croats by their communist past. The opposition as a whole is divided, has failed to develop a clear ideological alternative to the center-right HDZ, and has been unable to find a presidential candidate who could even begin to challenge the charismatic Tudjman.

This lack of balance on the political scene may be changing, however. The unexpected strength in the April elections of the formerly marginal SDP suggests that the main concern of average Croats continues to be making ends meet, and that a party that addresses social issues can win votes.

Gotovac seems to have registered this point when he defined his campaign on Wednesday as "a resistance against Croatia's undemocratic development, totalitarianism and degradation of public morality. We want to reverse the direction of Croatia's social and economic life, and return to Croatia what was promised to it at the very beginning" of independence in 1991.

Tomac struck a similar chord. The leader of the reformed communists said: "Croatia should not have an elite that lives in high style... Social Democrats want to preserve private property and free enterprise, but we [also] want to create a country which will protect the worker and his dignity, a country that will not allow a reign of furious capitalism." He added that he would reduce the power of the presidency and called on Gotovac to join forces with him against Tudjman if the ballot goes into a second round.

The president, for his part, launched his campaign by addressing newly graduated air force pilots in a nationally televised ceremony. This is in keeping with his and the HDZ's now standard practice of seeking maximum political advantage from the prerogatives of office and from the government's hold on the electronic media. The theme of his campaign is continuity of the policies that he says have proven successful since the first free elections in 1990. But even he acknowledged the need to reduce bureaucracy and improve the standard of living.

His main issues, however, are nationalist ones. Tudjman can be expected in the next two weeks to portray himself as the defender of Croatian interests in the face of increasing criticism from the U.S. Gotovac told RFE/RL in Zagreb two days ago (May 28) that Tudjman is exploiting current tensions with Croatia's western allies, just as Tito sought to rally his people behind him in the face of Soviet pressures in 1948.

Tomac, for his part, suggested to RFE/RL instead that the West is insisting on the immediate return of Serbian refugees but is less interested in the fate of displaced Croats.

Several well-known Croatian political observers told RFE/RL correspondents that the election underlines the need for some more fundamental changes. One is for less emphasis on personalities and more on political programs. A second is that Croatia requires a new generation of political leaders who are not so rooted in the past. Finally, the analysts said, the system itself must become more democratic and less linked to one man and one party.