Prague, 16 June 1997 (RFE/RL) - Early returns show that Croats yesterday easily reelected President Franjo Tudjman to a third term. The opposition put up a good fight, but failed to overcome some barriers of its own making and some that Tudjman's party had put in its path.
Tudjman appears to have taken about 60% of Sunday's vote as returns continue to come in. It is nonetheless clear that he has won a third term and will not have to face a run-off. Tudjman already claimed victory on election night. Social Democrat Zdravko Tomac currently has 22% of the total, and Liberal Vlado Gotovac is in third place with 18%. Returns are still due from Bosnia and abroad, where Tudjman is expected to do well.
Meanwhile in eastern Slavonia, journalists quoted Western diplomats as saying that many Serbs have been unexplicably dropped from the voting lists since the local elections in April. The turnout of all voters across Croatia was about 57%, down from 75% in the 1992 presidential vote.
Tudjman's new mandate will run until 2002. He is widely believed to be suffering from cancer and may not 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) deterred the voters from reelecting their charismatic president.
A good part of the reason for this was popular disgust with the opposition. This disapproval was already 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 was 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' 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 Tomac rather than present a united front of all opposition parties. Perhaps the Social Democrats felt that time was 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 in the spring was that they were the only party that presented itself as a clear social alternative to the HDZ in a country where most people have trouble making ends meet.
But there was no popular groundswell for Tomac. Both the Social Democrats and the coalition alike had to fight an up-hill battle in the presidential race, and they still were not even able to attain their minimal goal, which was to force Tudjman into a second round. They complained bitterly that the HDZ made full use of its prerogatives as the governing party to create an unfair environment for the elections.
First, they noted that Tudjman had recently carried out at the taxpayers' expense several public functions that smacked of campaigning. Just one week before the vote, 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 received extensive coverage in the state-run media, particularly on television, which is a HDZ monopoly. The opposition charged that its candidates were given little coverage, and that most of that was unfavorable.
A third point of contention was the HDZ-controlled state election commission. The opposition noted that opposition monitors were not present to check voting by 300,000 ethnic Croats in Bosnia-Herzegovina or by thousands more in Germany and elsewhere abroad. Tomac already told a press conference in Zagreb last week that the poling stations outside of Croatia would provide the HDZ with a golden opportunity to manipulate the results.
A final issue was that of "dirty tricks." The last major example of this before the vote involved a decision by the Zagreb city authorities not to allow Tomac to hold a rally on central Jelacic Square last Friday. Gotovac had spoken there two days earlier, and Tudjman the day after Gotovac. Tomac said that the decision showed that he was "not an equal candidate. It's apparently thought in this country that everything begins and ends with Tudjman." This is an apparent reference to the fact that Tudjman's address in Jelacic Square marked the end of the campaign for all candidates.
More serious, however, were acts of violence against the opposition. Tomac noted at his last press conference 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 Sunday's vote. Therefore, soon after he was attacked, he 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.