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Croatia: Elections Signal Democratic Change

A center-left opposition coalition swept Croatia's parliamentary elections on Monday. The late President Franjo Tudjman left a legacy of corruption, economic decline, and international isolation. Western observers and others are welcoming the signs that Croatians are ready to abandon that legacy for democratic change. RFE/RL correspondent Alexandra Poolos examines the new promise.

Prague, 5 January 2000 (RFE/RL) -- A leading six-party opposition alliance ousted the ruling Croatian Democratic Union -- called the HDZ -- in parliamentary elections Jan. 3, promising democratic change in Croatia.

The defeat of late President Franjo Tudjman's HDZ suggests that ordinary Croats are eager to step away from Croatia's isolationist past and join the rest of Europe.

Western news agencies say that the bloc is likely to have at least 70 out of 140 seats in a new parliament. The HDZ would have about 40 seats and a centrist four-party coalition 24, with the rest taken by a minor rightist grouping.

With 84 percent of the vote counted, Croatia's center-left opposition -- led by the Social Democrats and the Social Liberals along with a second alliance of four parties -- has a clear lead in eight out of 10 multi-member constituencies. The HDZ conceded defeat yesterday as early results came in.

The news reports say Social Democrat leader Ivica Racan is likely to emerge from the opposition coalition's victory as Croatia's new prime minister. Racan has openly admitted to illicit drug use and regularly appears at rock concerts. He is a former communist leader who gained fame a decade ago for helping Croatia break free from Yugoslav communism.

Back in the political limelight, he says he'll put an end to the international isolation that Tudjman's rule imposed on Croatia. He says he will initiate concern for human rights and freedom of the press. Racan says also that he will increase Croation cooperation with the UN war crimes tribunal at The Hague.

In return, he says he hopes to attract new international financial aid and win for Croatia memberships in such clubs as the World Trade Organization and NATO's Partnership for Peace program.

NATO and the EU have barred Croatia from funds and programs, citing Tudjman's failure to cooperate fully with the war crimes tribunal.

Racan says he's eager to lead Croatia into the new millennium.

"I don't want to comment on what has happened in Croatia's past. Croatia is tired of the past, tired of the conflicts of history and the wrong interpretation of Croatian history. We need to have a look at Croatia today and the Croatia of the future, because I fully believe Croatia does have a good future."

Lotte Leicht, Brussels-based director of Human Rights Watch, an international non-governmental watchdog group, says the elections represent a "moment and a possibility for change." Leicht says she hopes the new government will not be timid and will face change head on.

"This is a new beginning also in terms of working with the international community on different human rights aspects, but also in correcting the many human rights deficits in Croatia itself. And of course we hope this government will take the challenge and start a more comprehensive and principled cooperation with the International Criminal Court on the former Yugoslavia. But also that it would start adopting sincere policies that would ensure the safe return of its Serb minority to particularly the areas where people have left from."

Croatian citizens, who turned out in large numbers for yesterday's polls, say there is a strong mood for change, no matter what it is. One elderly voter (unnamed) in Split tells RFE/RL's South Slavic Service she hopes that electing new leaders will improve the lives of everyday citizens.

"I have never voted before, but now I voted. I want to vote because the situation is not very good, because a lot of companies collapsed, and a lot of people are jobless. The situation is worse than ever. I remember three wars and it was never as bad as it is now. Our leaders should take care of us."

A man from Split says the victory coalition shouldn't get too comfortable with its win. Croatians want change, he says, and politicians need to remember they are working for the people.

"I expect the situation to improve. It is better to change politicians. And we are going to change this new one if they do not do well."

Nobody expects the transition to be smooth. Even Racan has said that seeking the post of prime minister in Croatia is "suicidal."

Some of the obstacles to success are Croatia's deteriorated economy, which has suffered a downward spiral for a decade, and Tudjman's legacy of isolation and nationalism.

The potential new governing alliance says it plans to give tax breaks for new investment and to continue privatization of state-owned companies and banks. But it is unclear whether the coalition will be able to shepherd in an economic transition.

Because of the coalition's leftist leanings, many have questioned whether it will have the tenacity to enforce the tough measures needed to restart the economy. Further, the coalition members hold diverse views, raising concerns that they could have trouble forming and maintaining a cohesive government.

Presidential elections in three weeks (January 24) will clarify some of the cloud over Croatia's future. News agencies say Social Liberal Drazen Budisa suddenly appears well-placed to win the presidency.

His competitors are Stipe Mesic, former Yugoslavia's last president and vice president of the Croatian People's Party, and Mate Granic of the HDZ. If Granic or another member of the HDZ wins, the new government would have a president with veto power over parliamentary votes. That would complicate opposition plans to lead bold economic changes and to curb presidential powers.