Prague, 13 June 1997 (RFE/RL) - Croats go to the polls on Sunday to elect a president, and surveys suggest that President Franjo Tudjman's reelection is virtually a foregone conclusion. The opposition is struggling to overcome some barriers of its own making and some that Tudjman's party has put in its path.
Tudjman is seeking a third term, which would run until 2002. He is widely believed to be suffering from cancer and is unlikely to last out the five years. But neither his health, nor his authoritarian style of rule, nor the widely-perceived corruption in his Croatian Democratic Community (HDZ) are likely to deter the voters from reelecting their charismatic president.
A good part of the reason for this is popular disgust with the opposition. This disapproval was evident in the local elections in April, when voters handed the HDZ a clear victory in most of the country, including in the bitterly contested race for the Zagreb city council. The opposition did well only in some other cities and in Istria.
The opposition itself is largely responsible for this state of affairs. It has yet to produce a single leader who could pose a credible alternative to Tudjman. Furthermore, with the possible exception of the ex-communist Social Democrats, no nation-wide opposition party has developed a political program that sets it apart from the center-right HDZ. And the opposition parties frequently fight among themselves and thereby sap their own strength.
This was evident in the runup to the presidential campaign. At least eight parties finally agreed to back the Liberals' Vlado Gotovac as a joint candidate. Some tiny right-wing parties, moreover, failed to get enough signatures to place their candidates on the ballot. But the Social Democrats insisted on running their own Zdravko Tomac rather than present a united front of all opposition parties. Perhaps the Social Democrats feel that time is on their side, since they made a strong showing in April after years on the margins of politics. The most likely reason for their gains is that they are the only party that presents itself as a clear social alternative to the HDZ in a country where most people have trouble making ends meet.
But there is no suggestion of a popular groundswell for Tomac, whom polls suggest may get about 25% of the vote. Another 15% may go to Gotovac, with Tudjman taking the rest. The opposition itself admits it has little chance of beating Tudjman, but hopes at least to force him into a second round.
The Social Democrats and the coalition are fighting an up-hill battle even to attain that modest goal. They complain bitterly that the HDZ makes full use of its prerogatives as the governing party to create an unfair environment for the elections.
First, they note that Tudjman has recently carried out at the taxpayers' expense several public functions that smack of campaigning. Just last Sunday, he took 2,000 politicians, officers, entertainers, and other guests on a train trip to Vukovar. That eastern Slavonian town is of great symbolic importance to Croatia dating from the 1991 war and is slated to pass to full Croatian sovereignty in mid-July.
Second, the Vukovar trip, Tudjman's recent birthday gala at the National Theater, and other major appearances have received extensive coverage in the state-run media. This is particularly true of television, which is a HDZ monopoly. The opposition charges that its candidates are given little coverage, and that most of that is unfavorable.
A third point of contention is the HDZ-controlled state election commission. The opposition notes that opposition monitors will not be in a position to check voting by 300,000 ethnic Croats in Bosnia-Herzegovina or by thousands more in Germany and elsewhere abroad. Tomac told a press conference in Zagreb Thursday that poling stations outside of Croatia will provide the HDZ with the greatest opportunity to manipulate the results.
A final issue is that of "dirty tricks." The latest involves a decision by the Zagreb city authorities not to allow Tomac to hold a rally on central Jelacic Square on Friday. Gotovac spoke there on Wednesday, and Tudjman did so on Thursday. Tomac said that the decision shows that he is "not an equal candidate. It's apparently thought in this country that everything begins and ends with Tudjman."
More serious, however, were acts of violence against the opposition. Tomac notes that uniformed men stoned his van at one point in the campaign. But the most dramatic incident took place on June 5 in Pula, when a uniformed army captain hit Gotovac on the head and left him with a concussion. The state-run media said that the attacker was drunk and noted that he was immediately arrested and suspended from duty. The Liberals, however, asked why Tudjman and the HDZ did not condemn the incident. Some opposition journalists also charged that the captain was a known agent-provocateur for the regime.
Whatever the case, Gotovac was not able to recover fully from his injuries in time for this Sunday's vote. He therefore asked the election commission to postpone the balloting by two weeks. The commission turned him down, saying that there is no legal provision for delaying an election.