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Croatia: Polls Open In Presidential Election

Croatians go to the polls today in a presidential vote many hope will lead the country out of international isolation and economic stagnation. RFE/RL's correspondent Alexandra Poolos reports from Zagreb.

Zagreb, 24 January 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Voters will be choosing from nine candidates to replace the late Franjo Tudjman, an autocrat whose Croatian Democratic Community (HDZ) party ruled the country for nearly a decade. Tudjman died in December following a long illness.

The vote is seen as a symbolic end to Tudjman's rule, which saw Croatia increasingly alienated from the international community over its policy in Bosnia and failure to implement democratic reforms.

Today's election is the second of two crucial votes this month, following nationwide parliamentary polls on January 3. In that election, a six-party opposition coalition handily defeated the HDZ.

Of the nine candidates for president, three are seen as favorites -- Stipe Mesic of a four-party opposition alliance, Drazen Budisa of the Social Democrat-Social Liberal bloc, and outgoing Foreign Minister Mate Granic of the HDZ.

All three say they will work to improve Croatia's image abroad and increase ties to the West.

Opinion polls suggest the vote is likely to lead to a run-off. To win the election outright, a candidate must take more than 50 percent. Polls say Mesic is favored to capture about 30 percent of the vote -- ahead of Budisa with 25 percent and Granic with 15 percent. A run-off -- if necessary -- will be held February 7.

As the former foreign minister, Granic was an early favorite. But the HDZ's defeat in the parliamentary elections and the ensuing squabbles within the party have undermined his prospects. Granic has tried to distance himself from the HDZ -- and its close association in voters' minds to corruption -- but the move has not halted his plunge in the polls.

Mesic, the candidate of the "Opposition Four" -- a coalition combining the Croatian Peasants' Party, the Croatian People's Party, the Liberal Party, and the Istrian Democratic Assembly -- began the campaign languishing at just 10 percent in the polls.

A short, dapper man, Mesic is well-liked among voters for his easy manner and down-to-earth persona. Commentators say his rise from obscurity is due to the contrast voters see between him and the autocratic Tudjman.

Mesic says the future president's most important job will be to end Croatia's international isolation:

"Europe didn't isolate Croatia, Croatia did it to itself. The problem is we should encourage the government and parliament to change the policy ... [to] integrate Croatia into Europe and make Croatia a secure zone and state of law. I would like to see Croatia as a zone of peace. This could attract foreign investment. That capital will find its way to Croatia, not to the government. We don't need further loans and debts. But directly to private enterprises to activate the economy."

Mesic was the first prime minister in Tudjman's 1990 HDZ government, and he played a key role in the year leading up to Croatia's independence in 1991. In 1994, however, he split with Tudjman in protest over the way the president was conducting the Bosnian war. Since then, he has been an outspoken critic of both Tudjman and the HDZ.

Budisa, the joint candidate of the Social Democratic Party and the HSLS coalition, won recognition as a student leader in the early 1970s. He had good reason to be optimistic early in the campaign, following his coalition's stunning victory in the parliamentary elections.

As the campaign has proceeded, however, Budisa's popularity has slipped. Commentators say Budisa's manner is stiff, reminding many of Tudjman himself.

Budisa says he offers Croatians decades of experience, which he says will allow him to lead the country out of its economic decline and international isolation. He says he would curb the powers of the presidency and work closely with parliament:

"I'm for minimizing the president's activities and for changing the constitution. The government should be responsible exclusively to the parliament. So far, the government is responsible to the president. I stand for a Croatia where citizens will be equal and their rights will be protected. The rights of minorities will be protected. We will continue cooperation with The Hague [war crimes tribunal] and will remove the obstacles we have now in cooperating with The Hague. I would like to take Croatia closer to Europe. After the [parliamentary] elections, Europe has opened its arms to Croatia."

The international community is watching the elections closely in the hopes the new president will help reverse Croatia's isolation. This includes cooperating with the United Nations Criminal Tribunal, allowing Serbian refugees to return to their homes in Croatia, and boosting human rights and press freedoms in the country.