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Croatia: Presidential Candidates Hit The Road For Election Campaign

Since Croatia's center-left opposition took the recent parliamentary elections in a landslide victory, attention has turned to the country's upcoming presidential race. The two leading candidates come from the opposition alliance and from the former ruling party. RFE/RL's Alexandra Poolos looks at the leading candidates and explores the significance of the election for Croatia.

Prague, 12 January 2000 (RFE/RL) -- With elections less than two weeks away, Croatian presidential candidates are boldly launching countrywide campaigns to drum up voter support.

The presidential campaign is widely viewed as the second half of the earlier election match. Earlier this month, the Social Democratic Party/Croatian Social Liberal Party (SDP/HSLS) led a six-party alliance to victory in parliamentary elections, which ended the nine-year rule of the nationalist Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ). That was the party of the late president, Franjo Tudjman, who died in December. The SDP/HSLS coalition is expected to form a government next month.

Most power in Croatia, however, is concentrated not in the parliament but in the president. That's why the race to choose Tudjman's successor is being closely watched at home and abroad, as Croatia struggles to free itself from a decade of international isolation and economic decline.

Peter Palmer of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) says the election is an opportunity for the country to improve its democratic practices.

"All the main candidates have been making encouraging statements and the general feeling is that we will be able to deal with any of those main candidates and would look forward to a positive cooperation. However, it's important to mention that the key is results in practice. Nice words, nice meetings, nice cooperation that's all very well, but on a number of areas I've already mentioned, especially the areas of key importance to the OSCE -- which are return, reintegration, human rights, minority rights, freedom of the media -- on these issues we'll be looking for greater action. "

Drazen Budisa, the candidate for the SDP/HSLS coalition, began his journey in style yesterday in a campaign bus with his name emblazoned across the side.

Budisa is a former dissident who served four years in jail in the 1970s for leading a student movement that demanded greater autonomy for Croatia within Yugoslavia.

He spoke to a large rally in Zagreb yesterday before hitting the roads in a cross-country campaign.

"I'm going on a journey through all of Croatia in order to come back on January 24 as the new president by your will. I have a force. I have experience. I have will. I have good associates. Behind me there are two respectable political parties. With our joint forces we are going to renew your country. We are going to remove all of the problems in the democratic system in Croatia. We are going to resolve the economic crisis and build a social, equal and just country. That's our promise. We can do that. And we will do that."

The HDZ, for its candidate, has put forward Foreign Minister Mate Granic. Granic is a moderate with seven years of government experience and many contacts in the West. He vows to boost human rights, cooperate with the opposition, and work to integrate Croatia into the international community.

In an interview with Reuters news agency last week, Granic said his aim is to support a parliamentary democracy and turn Croatia into "a nice country, in which foreigners will come with pleasure." In the weeks before the parliamentary election, Granic was heavily favored in the opinion polls. But with the crushing defeat of the HDZ, Granic's chances in the presidential election are expected to suffer.

Still, Granic says he thinks a HDZ president would provide needed balance for Croatia once the SDP/HSLS coalition takes power next month. He has emphasized that if elected he would cooperate with the opposition, but he also says that "checks and balances" are needed in the form of another political party in power.

The SDP/HSLS alliance has said that if its candidate is elected president, its new government will put forth constitutional changes limiting the president's tremendous powers. Analysts speculate that if a member of the HDZ party is elected president, he may block such changes.

Like last month's parliamentary elections, voter turnout for the presidential poll is expected to be high. Palmer says the anticipation among Croatians is palpable:

"There is a great deal of energy and enthusiasm among the public at the moment. But I think there has been frustration over a long period of time, over a number of issues, but certainly including the international isolation Croatia has found itself in. There's a very strong feeling that Croatia's place is in Europe. Croatia should be among the first of the transition countries to succeed into integrating into Europe. And it's enormously disappointing that Croatia had such limited success up until now. And there's a great deal of hope that now, having made this turning point, these big political changes that are taking place, Croatia finally can start to make some real progress and take its rightful place, as they see it, among the European family. So I think there is a great deal of hope and energy which I see among the people I meet every day."

It is widely doubted that any candidate will win the vote outright on election day. Besides the two leading candidates, there are another seven candidates in the race. A split vote is expected, which would force a run-off two weeks later.